Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Unchanging Words and Roman Wives

Here's a little chart of words that we still understand. The older the word, the bigger it is: the newer, the smaller. If you click doubly on the picture you ought be able to see it more clearly.

The picture was drawn up by a chap called Mark Pagel at the University of Reading, for an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. The underlying principle is, of course, that the more basic a word is, the less it changes. Highfalutin words, like, for example, highfalutin, tend to be much more mutable. The most central words are as unchanging as a tramp's pants.

It is possible to write whole sentences that would have been understood in Anglo-Saxon times, more than a thousand years ago. For example:

Harold is swift. His hand is strong and his word is grim. Late in life he went to his wife in Rome.

However, most Anglo-Saxon sounds to modern ears like utter gobbledygook (a word that was not invented until 1944).

Lots more strange maps here.

The Inky Fool school for the study of ancient languages


  1. Jerry van Kooten26 October 2010 11:42

    You say: "Highfalutin words, like, for example, highfalutin, tend to be much more mutable."
    Not sure if this applies to English as well, but in Dutch (which is my first language), the "like, for example" combination is incorrect. It's not even a tautology.

  2. The Antipodean26 October 2010 12:57

    I note the prominence of 'Ashes' there.

    Does it say things like 'to swim', 'to kill', 'to give' because that's the specific meaning? usage? form? that is the oldest? I am assuming here that 'to suck leaf' is just an interesting juxtaposition rather than an ancient practice of some sort.

  3. What's wrong with: "zoals, bijvoorbeeld,"? I believe I say that a lot. And many people with me.
    Would Mr Van Kooten care to elaborate?

  4. I'm afraid that Dutch is all Greek to me, and therefore double itself.

    For the record (if there is one) my "like, for example" was merely to give an incredibly humorous delay before repeating the word "highfalutin" as an example of itself, or autology.

  5. Jerry van Kooten26 October 2010 22:14

    Dogberry - I understand now! :)

    Ingrid, I know many people use it. Technically, it is incorrect. It works in English as well, so I will use English examples here.
    You can say "fruit, like an apple" or "fruit, for example, an apple". Both "like" ("zoals") and "for example" ("bijvoorbeeld") mean you're going to give an example of the previous. Using both, except when a humorous delay is necessary of course, is incorrect. Though not as irritating as "groter als", of course.

  6. We may have been taught to find "groter als" irritating, but that does not make it incorrect.
    To me "zoals, bijvoorbeeld" implies that what follows is but one of many possible examples. And anyway, language is full of redundancies, so we must find them useful. And if enough people use "like, for instance" it goes on to become the proper way of saying it. It is always amusing when writers of previous generations condemn practices which are now the norm. The example that comes to mind is Van Lennep, who says in Klaasje Zevenster (1866) that the use of "u" as a subject is a sin against Dutch grammar. My apologies to non-Dutch speakers about the totally incomprehensible Dutch example, but I can't think of an English one, though I'm sure there are many.

  7. All of these incomprehensible dutch examples are just making me want to learn another language, like, for example, Dutch.

  8. Here Joy Reigns Supreme. But she is a harsh mistress, especially when it comes to tautology. Why even mention quips and cranks and wanton wiles, nods and becks and wreathed smiles? Why indeed? I have no notion why.

  9. Because decoration is more important than communication. And Information and Economy are the ugly stepsisters of Delight.