Thursday, July 21, 2005

Kine is money

Cattle was money in the ancient world. This sounds like a cultural statement, but it's a linguistic observation too. In Hebrew, one of the words for cattle, miqneh, also carries a connotation of 'purchase' (cf. Gen49:32). The Latin word pecu meant cattle originally, but money generally, as we see in English words like 'pecuniary'. 'Pecuniary' is a fancy word meaning 'related to money'. The Germanic words that survive in English are much more down to earth: 'fee', for example, or 'gold' (cf. German Geld, 'money').

Here's the cool part. 'Fee' comes from Old English feoh, which also means 'cattle, money'. It is how the Anglo-Saxons ended up pronouncing *fehu, which is what Latin pecu sounded like when the original Germanics got hold of it. So you have the same root from Indo-European coming into English twice: once straightaway, as it was forming as its own separate language, and again over a millennium later when modern English was on a linguistic shopping spree, taking words from Latin for scholarly purposes left and right. (Well, maybe not 'right', but 'left' came directly into English as sinister.)

We see this again in the concept of "above, over." English started out with over, ofer, but that wasn't enough for the fine nuances English vocabulary would come to be capable of. So in addition to our own word, we have taken no less than three words or prefixes from other languages: German ueber-, the Latin super-, and the Greek hyper-. These didn't just mean the same thing (roughly) in their respective languages, they were the same word! It is oddly appropriate that the commercially-minded English, who gave the particularly commercial connotation to the word 'fee', should receive such a rich return-on-linguistic-investment.

These are the same English who ruled half the world with said commercial empire.

Resistance is futile. Your words will be assimilated.

1 comment:

Frank said...

That's what I love about the English language: it's unabashed crass consumerism! My favorite image of English, though, is that of the whore spreading its legs to receive all the languages of the world and giving birth, therefrom, to new word and phrase "love children."