By Lara Schwarz and Dora LaCasse
Remember when sick just meant that your immune system was compromised? Now you hear it used instead of cool. Or, have you noticed that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the names Dawn and Don? These are examples of language change in progress! Language change can take a number of forms, from changes in meaning, to the addition of new words, to changes in our pronunciation. Changes such as these, that have been taking place for generations, have resulted in words that are shared across many languages. A language learner may recognize the relationship between German Katze and English cat, and immediately know they are related. These types of words are called cognates, and they have similar forms and meanings in multiple languages–more than one might expect. Cognates show us just how systematic language change can be, and how far reaching the relationships between many of the world’s languages are.
Language changes often occur when two or more cultural groups come into contact with one another. For instance, the invention of cellphones and the global presence of English led to German borrowing the word handy to refer to these helpful devices. The changes might also be internally motivated. You’ve probably heard in the news, “the defendant pled guilty”, but did you know that the dictionary gives pleaded as the past tense form of plead? Perhaps because of influence from similar-sounding verbs like feed-fed, lead-led, or bleed-bled, pled has become widely-used. According to William Labov (1994), a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on language variation and change, language change is a natural, systematic process.
Quite remarkably, the vast majority of languages spoken in Europe, including German, French, English, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, and even Icelandic, stem from a common ancestor language called proto-indo-european, or PIE. Linguists think that PIE was spoken some 5,000 years ago near the Black Sea, eventually spreading across Europe and the Indian subcontinent (Penny 2002:2–3). Cognates emerge from hundreds of generations of language change, and linguists can use them to reconstruct the common ancestors of seemingly unrelated languages. Modern day descendants of PIE include words for livestock, family, numbers, and food (Stedje & Prell 2007:49). Some are very easily recognizable, such as salt (sal in Spanish, sel in French, Salz in German, and salt in Icelandic), while others are less so (English goose is related to German Gans and Spanish ganso).
Though we can’t know for sure what PIE looked like, linguists can reconstruct it by identifying patterns in cognates. For example, the words for fish (German: Fisch, Spanish: pez) and father (Icelandic: faðir, Spanish and Italian: padre) reveal patterns that lead linguists to believe that the sounds ‘p’ in Romance and ‘f’ in Germanic languages share a common ancestor, as might the ‘d’ in Romance and ‘t/th’ in Germanic languages. These patterns can be found throughout numerous languages spoken today which were once related to PIE. But linguists aren’t the only ones who can use this evidence of systematic language change. Language learners who notice these patterns can also use them to help learn vocabulary in a new language.
Cognates allow us to uncover our shared linguistic history and the fascinating, natural process that is language change. They can even help us in our language learning efforts. An important job for some everyday words!
Labov, W. (1994). Principles of linguistic change. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge [Mass.]: Blackwell.
Penny, R. J. (2002). A history of the Spanish language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stedje, A., & Prell, H.-P. (2007). Deutsche Sprache gestern und heute: Einführung in Sprachgeschichte und Sprachkunde (6. Aufl). Paderborn: Fink.