The Creative Exploration of Language


I became interested in the word divination recently.  I knew that it meant “fortune telling” or “seeing the future,” and its derivation from the word divine, meaning “godlike” is clear, but what is the connection between being “godlike” and seeing the future?

This question is not as easy to answer as it may first appear.  In a monotheistic worldview the answer is obvious: the future is known, even preordained, by an all-knowing, all-seeing God.  However, divination tends to be, at minimum, frowned upon in monotheistic societies and, at times, persecuted.  The picture is more interesting when considered from a pagan perspective because pagan societies practice divination openly and officially.

The gods of pagan pantheons are not omniscient and all powerful (this is implied simply by the fact of there being multiple gods) and many mythological tales revolve around the acquisition of knowledge.  For instance, in the Norse tradition, Odin spends much of his time engaged in adventures and ordeals connected to the pursuit of knowledge.  He steals the mead of poetry from the giant Suttung, sacrifices himself on the sacred ash tree Yggdrasil in order to receive the runes, and, most dramatically, trades one of his eyes to Mimir (“the rememberer”) in exchange for a wisdom-bestowing drink from his well.  In addition, his two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) fly around the world every day and come back to alight on his shoulders and tell him what they have seen.  Far from being omniscient, Odin is very human-like in his striving to increase his knowledge.

Keeping with the Norse theme, the main method of divination in ancient Scandinavia and the wider Germanic world was the use of the aforementioned runes, via the practice of runecasting.  This involved carving runes (letter shapes which have symbolic as well as phonological meaning) onto pieces of wood and tossing them onto a cloth.  The person doing the reading picked up three pieces of wood and attempted to divine the future from the meanings implied by the runes.  The description provided by the Roman author Tacitus in his Germania is generally regarded as the best source for this practice in the ancient world.  There are also later references in Scandinavian sources such as the 20th stanza of the Eddic poem “Völuspá.”

From a modern, Post-Enlightenment perspective that prizes rationalism and explains the world in terms only of causality, this makes no sense.  But much of the way that our forebears understood their world rested on the belief in another principle, which the 20th century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung termed “synchronicity” and which he defined as a “meaningful coincidence” or, more formally, “an acausal connecting principle.”  In the context of divination, whether it be runes, geomancy, I Ching or the Tarot, it is this principle of synchronicity that drives the connection between a given operation and the issue under consideration.

This seems to be the key to understanding why monotheistic religions have discouraged divination.  Insight into the subtle structure of the world, of the unseen ways that things are connected, both presently and forward in time, is the province of the omniscient God.  Any human practice that claims to make this possible gives human beings the opportunity to be equivalent to God, which is viewed as a sin and an act of rebellion.

This is an intriguing place to land.  The implication is that in the pagan worldview, people are able to connect to something outside themselves in order to gain access to knowledge of the future, to become like a god.  Divination can then be defined as “knowing like (a) God” or, in the terms of a linguistic purist such as William Barnes, “godknowing.”






Freedom is a wonderful example of a word that is simple and direct, but hides an interesting root meaning.  It is made up of two halves, free– meaning “the ability to act in a self-directed manner” and –dom which is a suffix that indicates a general state of being.  Freedom has strong cognates in languages closely related to English, such as German, Dutch and the Scandinavian tongues:

  • Freiheit (German)
  • Vrijheid (Dutch)
  • Frihet (Norwegian and Swedish)
  • Frihed (Danish)
  • Frelsi (Icelandic)

The interesting part of freedom is the first part, free-.  In looking at the word and the list of cognates above, there is a very clear pattern of f+r+ei/i/e at play.  These vowels are known in phonetics as “front vowels” since the tongue is in the front of the mouth when one makes their sounds.  This pattern is also found in words from these same languages such as friend (Freund in German) and the Norse gods Frey, Freya and Frigg, all of which have connections to fertility and love.

I started tracing the f+r+front vowel root back within the Germanic languages and found that the pattern goes all the way back to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *friaz and Proto-Indo European root *pri-, which both mean “love.”  This is the same root from which the Sanskrit word प्रिय (priya), which means “dear” or “beloved,” comes and is the source of the modern name Priyanka.

The interesting question here is how a word connected to the concept of love came to be defined as a lack of restriction.  The best explanation I have seen for this is that the word meaning “love” came also to mean “not in bondage” because it was applied to members of one’s family in societies that practiced slavery.   In other words, one’s household might contain two types of people, family and friends (those who are free) and slaves (those who are unfree).

This sense of duality seems to hang around freedom, which is often posited as being one half of a pair, with the other side of the coin being responsibility.  This is expressed succinctly in the famous line by Eleanor Roosevelt that, “With freedom comes responsibility,” and, more poetically, by the 20th century rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons in the title of his essay, Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword.

This sense of freedom being paired with responsibility ties in nicely with the other themes of love and a lack of restriction.  It seems that freedom might be defined as the state of being loved, unrestricted and responsible for oneself.  It does not exist on its own, like a chair or a book, but in opposition to its antithesis: indifference, restriction and dependence.




At first glance, the words raven and crow don’t appear to have anything in common, despite describing closely related types of birds.  I started looking into them because I encountered two different translations of the Welsh name Brân, as in the legendary King of Britain, Brân the Blessed.  Some sources translated Brân as “raven” and others as “crow.”  Given that they are technically two different birds, I thought this was strange.  We distinguish between them in English, is that not the case in other languages?

I decided to investigate the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as Welsh.  For good measure, I also looked into Greek because I was interested to see how it related to the others.  Below is a list of what I found:

  • Raven / Crow– English
  • Rabe / Krähe– German
  • Raaf / Kraai– Dutch and Afrikaans
  • Ravn / Kråke– Norwegian and Danish
  • Korp / Kråka– Swedish
  • Hrafn / Krár– Icelandic
  • Cuervo / Cuervo– Spanish
  • Corbeau / Corbeau– French
  • Corvo / Corvo– Italian
  • Cigfran / Brân– Welsh
  • Koráki / Koráki– Greek

A few things jump out at me about this list:

  • The Germanic languages distinguish between the two types of birds but the Romance languages and Greek do not.
  • The Germanic and Romance words are very different, with the exception of korp for “raven” in Swedish.  This is clearly a loanword.
  • Welsh also distinguishes between the birds, but the relationship of these words to the Germanic and Romance terms is a bit opaque.
  • Icelandic, being the most conservative (i.e., being the least changed from its “ancestor” language, in this case Old Norse) seems to hold the key to unlocking the connection.

What I noticed about Icelandic is the seemingly vestigial “h” on the front of hrafn.  This “h before r” pattern comes from Old Norse and may be a feature of Proto-Germanic, since it existed in Old English as well, where the word was hræfn.  While other Scandinavian languages dropped the “h” where it proceeded “r” as they evolved, Icelandic did not.  This was the clue I needed to get to the bottom of the connection between raven and crow.

The reason why the “h” is important is that a shift known as Grimm’s Law occurred over time where the initial “k” sound found in most branches of the Indo-European language became an “h” in the Germanic languages.  To give a relatively well known example of this, the “h” sound at the beginning of the English word hundred remained a hard “k” sound at the beginning of its Latin counterpart, centum, and both words can be traced back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *kemtom.

So, rather than some sort of strange outlier, the “h” at the beginning of the Icelandic word hrafn is an indicator of a “k” sound that has been lost over time.  If one adds the “k” to the beginning of the Germanic words (again, with the exception of Swedish), one ends up with a consonant root of “k-r,” often followed by “v/w/f/b,” which maps very well to examples from both the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as to Greek.  It is not hard to imagine (k)ravencorvo and koráki coming from the same ancestral PIE word.  One can even see, with a bit of squinting, the “k-r+v/w/f/b” root poking through the Welsh word cigfran and, with a bit more squinting, brân.  Taking the investigation of the etymological root down to the lowest level, I eventually got to the PIE root *ker– which denotes something that is “horned.”  There are many loan words from Latin and French, such as corner and cornucopia that demonstrate this, not to mention Cornwall and the horned god of Celtic myth, Cernunnos.

The implication here is that, at one time, the raven and the crow were referred to by a single word, but that for some reason, speakers of the Germanic and Celtic languages began distinguishing between them, while speakers of Latin (ancestor of the Romance languages) and Greek did not.  The reason why they did this is not obvious, but I am tempted by the idea that it was because this particular bird had a greater significance in Germanic and Celtic cultural spheres as compared to other areas.

After doing some research on the topic, I do think this “cultural” explanation may in fact have something to do with it.  While ravens and crows have figured as psychopomps associated with war, death, the otherworld and prophecy in a variety of cultures around the world, it is notable that in some cultures their role exceeds that of helper and they become equated in some sense with particular gods.

For example, in Greek mythology, Apollo uses ravens as messengers.  In Norse mythology, Odin also has ravens, Huginn and Muninn, usually translated as “thought” and “memory,” who fly around the world on a daily basis and come back to alight on his shoulders and tell him what they have seen.  The messenger theme found in Greek mythology is clearly present in the Norse myth, but Odin’s connection with his ravens goes much further; they appear to be extensions of his mind.  The connection is so strong, in fact, that one of his nicknames is hrafnagud, or “ravengoð.”

Similarly, in Irish mythology, the goddesses Badb, Morrigan and Macha turn themselves into crows and, as noted above, Brân the Blessed’s name literally means “crow.”

In the end, I’m left with the intriguing notion that the Germanic and Celtic peoples, as distinct from their neighbors to the south, developed more elaborate ways of talking about these black birds because they figured heavily in their respective mythologies in connection with gods.  Further, it appears that the importance of ravens/crows developed within the Germanic and Celtic cultural contexts, as opposed to Indo-European, since only the Germanic and Celtic languages distinguish between them.


As I have been diving back into Buddhism, I am struck by how much my understanding of the idea of sunyata, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “emptiness” has changed over the years, particularly in relation to meditation.  In the past I have interpreted the concept not so much as a nihilistic “void,” which seems to have been the tendency of many early western commentators, but rather as a point of equilibrium, a perfect balance between sleeping and waking, unencumbered by the contingent, physical world. 

Nowadays, though, I pay more attention to words and I recently stumbled across a bit of etymology that added layers of meaning to sunyata.  In digging for the roots of the word, I discovered that it ultimately comes from the Proto Indo-European root *svi– meaning “hollow.” 

This is interesting because the connotation of “hollow” is a bit different from “empty” and “void.”  In modern English, “empty” seems to be a general word for something being missing or lacking.  A cup can be empty, but so can a room or a head or a million other things.  And “void” seems to be used as an intensifier to indicate a sort of extreme form of absence, generally resulting from an action.  One “voids” a sale because a mistake was made, for example.

A better translation of sunyata might be “hollowness.”  If something is “hollow” it implies that there is an outer casing or shell that contains empty space within it.  In terms of meditation, this connotes not so much the total annihilation of the self implied in the terms “empty” and “void” but rather the opening up of space within.     

Here is where sunyata really gets interesting.  The root *svi– caught my eye because it contains two letters whose pronunciation and spelling toggle back and forth in different languages, “s” (often pronounced like “sh”) and “w” (often pronounced like “v” or represented by vowel combinations like “ui” and “eu.”  I began looking for words that had the rough form of “s/sh+w/ui/eu” and came up with two observations.  

First, words that follow this pattern tend to focus on motion or change: swift, sweep, swoop, swell, swing, etc.  The most revealing word in this cluster though, comes from German.  In German, schwanger means “pregnant.”  So now we are dealing with a linguistic complex that includes both the sense of “hollowness,” as well as the sense of movement, growth and “becoming.” 

This is the key to the concept of sunyata.  The creation of “hollowness” isn’t done for it’s own sake and it is not the end goal.  It is a means to an end.  One creates “hollowness” within by removing the mental and emotional underbrush that hinders our progress and creates space for something to grow and take shape. 

One might ask what it is that is being allowed to grow and I believe the answer is suggested by another PIE root in our complex, *s(w)e, which is connected to the word sui in Latin.  In English, this became “self.”  This interpretation may seem counterintuitive and inappropriately Jungian, but there is support for it in the Tibetan tradition.  

In The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism by Lama Thubten Yeshe, he discusses realizing sunyata as the “way you break down the gross concepts of ego and eradicate the self-pitying image of yourself” (p. 34) that arise from being overly focused on attachment.  He then later makes the revealing comment that “The Buddha is within; that’s where we should seek” (p. 41).   

This makes sense on a practical level, that the realization and acceptance of sunyata is a necessary precursor to enlightenment, to finding your true self and the Buddha within.


Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (and the Dao)

I recently noticed that words related to the passing on of knowledge tend to be built on a base consisting of the consonant combination r-d.   The thought occurred to me when I came across the archaic English word rede, which means “counsel” or “advice”.  I immediately made the connection to the German word reden, which means “to talk”.  Reden is used much like its English counterpart, to refer to a substantive communication, often where advice or counsel is given.  Think of the implication in a sentence like “We’ll talk when I get home.” 

The other place that rede survives in modern English is in the poorly understood name of the 9th century Anglo-Saxon monarch of Wessex, Æthelred the Unready.  His nickname does not mean “ill prepared” but rather “unadvised” or “lacking counsel” and is a play on words given that his actual name means “noble counsel.”  

Following my usual process, I started thinking about other words built on the r-d model (and adjacent sounds like t and th) that related to communicating knowledge and made an amusing discovery related to the formulation “reading, writing and arithmetic.”  At first glance this is simply an alliterative phrase tying together three skills one learns in school that, apparently randomly, share similar sounds. 

But the similarities between these words are not the result of randomness; the connection between the consonant combination r-d and the idea of knowledge and this goes back to Proto-Indo European (PIE).  The PIE root of both reading and writing is *red, meaning “to scratch or cut,” which brings to mind ancient forms of writing such as carving symbols into wood and bone, as with runic inscriptions.  Arithmetic is a bit more complicated, as it comes to English from Greek, but the r-d (or in this case, r-th) base is clearly there, though some sources, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, trace it back to the PIE root *re(i).

At this point I found myself in a familiar place.  I had uncovered an interesting and revealing PIE root and made connections to a complex of words that carried a concept forward from the darkness of the past.  

But something bothered me.  There is another cluster of words built around r-d, those coming from the PIE root *reidh from which we get ride, raid, road, ready, etc.  This other cluster, and indeed the letter r itself, clearly relates to the concept of motion. 

At first, I felt that these two different connotations, knowledge and motion, were discordant until the phrase “to read fluently” popped into my head and it all came together.  The concept of “fluency” is one of motion and the knowledge-related words coming from the r-d root relate to the passing on of that knowledge.  In other words, knowledge moves.  From a different angle, a common way to refer to an intelligent person is to say they are “quick” or “quick witted.”  Clearly, the concepts of knowledge and motion are intimately entwined.

This then, led me to Alan Watts’ explanation of the Dao as “a sort of rhythmic intelligence” (What is Tao?, page 37) which posits movement as being an intrinsic part of knowledge.  Put differently, knowledge exists in order to be communicated, to be passed on and to flow back and forth between people, cultures and eras.  

Toward the Future

I’ve been wondering about the word future for a while.  In other Germanic languages it tends to be made up of two parts, the first meaning something like “to” or “forward” and the second meaning “to come” in the Continental languages or “time” in Scandinavia.  Here are some examples:

  • zukunft (German)
  • toekomst (Dutch)
  • toekoms (Afrikaans
  • framtida (Swedish)
  • fremtid (Danish)
  • framtid (Norwegian)
  • framtíð (Icelandic)

Initially, I assumed that this was simply a case of English using a French loan word where its Germanic cousins had retained the native word.  This view was perhaps strengthened by my knowledge of the word futuro in Spanish.

I let the matter rest there for a few weeks until one day I recalled that there is another way to say future in Spanish, porvenir, which follows the Germanic model and can be read literally as “for to come”.  After a bit of research I discovered that the same situation exists in French, which has both futur and avenir.

This rekindled my interest in future and I began digging into its etymology.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as straightforward as I had expected.  It came into English through French, which got it from Latin.  It seems to have begun as an irregular form of the word esse, which means “to be” and can be seen in words such as essence and its derivatives.

Before the adoption of future, English had a native word for the concept, toweard, which follows the Germanic model and has some interesting connections.  The second element of the word, –weard, comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *wert, which means “to turn.”  Both the word and meaning survive in a functional way in modern English as the suffix –ward in words such as forward and backward.    So, in Old English the future was something that one turned into.

However, -weard has a far more interesting set of connections that radiate out from its PIE root.  In English, this is best exemplified by the word wyrd, which is generally translated as “fate” and is cognate with the Old Norse word urdr.  This allows a poetic reading of toweard as something like “turning into fate” which I find appealing.

The other connection that jumps out at me is the German word werden, which means “to become” and is used as an auxiliary verb to form the future tense.  For example, in German, “We are eating” is “Wir essen” while “We will eat” is “Wir werden essen.”

As regular readers will know, I love to keep digging and make these kinds of connections that allow me to consider the different angles and shades of meaning of a word.  However, this “archeological” approach sometimes leads me to miss the forest for the trees.

In this case, it was only at the end of my investigations that I realized the word toweard had, in fact, never left English at all.  It survives, very recognizably, as toward, shorn of its larger meaning and reduced to the status of a preposition.


Nightmare is a half understood word in the sense that the first half is clear, but the second half is not.  What is a mare in this context and what does it have to do with waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding?  As it turns out, both halves of the word are interesting and both have remarkably deep and consistent Indo-European roots.

Night is derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) word *nekwt, meaning “night”.  This word is remarkably stable across languages and follows a patter of n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant, generally fricative:

  • nacht (German)
  • nox (Latin)
  • naktam (Sanskrit)
  • natt (Swedish)
  • naktis (Lithuanian)

It is also seems to me to be connected to two other words, next and near.  As is often the case, this connection is a bit clearer in German where the words are nächste and nahe, respectively.  Other German words that fit this pattern are nach, which means “to” or “towards” and nachbar, which means “neighbor” in the literal sense of a “near dweller”.

The common thread linking all of these words that follow the form n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant seems to be the idea of proximity or closeness, which fits nicely with the constrictive nature of night and darkness in general.

Now for the second part of the word, mare.  This comes from the Old English word mare, meaning an evil spirit or an incubus.  This word also has deep and consistent Indo-European roots, with the word being mahr in German and mara, marra or mare in the Scandinavian languages.  While there are a couple of competing theories regarding which PIE root mare comes from, the leading contender is *mer, which means “to harm” or “to rub” with the connotation of “chafing”, “rubbing away” or “wearing out”.

Putting the word back together we get to something that seems to indicate an evil spirit in close proximity to the sufferer and putting them under duress with constant, wearying pressure.  Not a bad way to describe something that haunts your sleep and terrifies you while you are unconscious.

In the end, I’m left with thought that the original idea as to the cause of nightmares, a literal demon perched atop you while you sleep, pressing on you, wearing you down in the darkness, is nothing more than a poetic way to describe a phenomenon that would today be described in more prosaic terms using scientific psychological language related to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I don’t think most people understand any better than they understand the term “demon”.

It seems to me that people in both eras attempted to define and describe something complex and poorly understood with terms that were appropriate to their times and cultures.  Ultimately, though, they are both using metaphors and, as usual, the older ones seem more vibrant and compelling.



Thrice Greatest: Maha, Machen, Magnus

I have recently rekindled my interest in Buddhism and have subsequently been doing a lot of reading on the subject.  More specifically, I am reading some of the Mahayana sutras, starting with the Diamond Sutra, and I had a realization that brought me both pleasure and some amount of frustration: the Sanskrit word maha, the first element in Mahayana, means “great” and I had never realized this before.

Given that Mahayana is one of the two main branches of Buddhism, I had encountered the word numerous times and had a clear understanding of its meaning: “Greater Vehicle”.  However, I never stopped to break it down and assign English meanings to the parts of the Sanskrit word.  I treated the word as a symbol where the combination of those particular letters, in that particular order, simply equaled the meaning “Greater Vehicle” in some sort of creatio ex nihilo process that did not bear examination.

But when I did break the word down into maha + yana, I saw connections immediately.  The first word that came to mind was maharaja, which means “great king”.  I then began, as I tend to do when thinking about a word, to look for substitution patterns that might help me to transpose the word into other languages within the same language family.

I knew from prior research that consonants that sound “softer” in Sanskrit tend to sound “harder” in European languages so I focused on the “h” in the middle of maha and turned it into two phonetically related “hard” sounds of “k” and “g” and came up with some cognates immediately.

I first tried the m-k root and (focusing on sound) came up with the German words Macht and machen, which mean “power” and “to make or do” respectively.   This makes sense in that maha doesn’t seem to mean “great” in the sense of “large”, but rather in terms of power.  In other words, something is great because it can do things.

Using the m-g root, the the first word that came to mind was megin, the Old Norse word for “power” or “strength”.  My mind then jumped to the Greek word mega, which means “great”.  In the modern world, this is a word that all English speakers understand intuitively, from Megabucks to Megalopolis to Megabus.  For those with a more esoteric bent, one need only think of Aleister Crowley describing himself as “To Mega Therion,” or “The Great Beast.”

At this point, other associations started popping up, such as the Latin word magnus, which also means “great.”  From this we get the reasonably common Scandinavian boy’s name Magnus, which was an element in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor Karl Magnus, better known by the French version of his name, Charlemagne.  Again, he was given this name because of his deeds in uniting large parts of western Europe under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, not for his physical size.

Finally, given my interest in ancient, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, I hit on the legendary Greco-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest” Hermes.  Here again, greatness is a byproduct of power, of the ability to do things.  In the case of Hermes, there is no general agreement among scholars as to why he was called “thrice greatest”, but competing theories include his mastery of the three areas of magical wisdom in the ancient world, alchemy, astrology and theurgy, and the three most exalted roles in society, those of philosopher, priest and king.

In most ways, this is a tidy and satisfying conclusion to my investigation of maha, and I am once again left with an admiration for the beauty and clarity of Sanskrit.  Every time I encounter transliterated Sanskrit I am pleasantly surprised at how much intuitive sense it makes in relation to other Indo-European languages.  However, I am also left with a lingering sense of frustration that it is so difficult to learn because it uses Devangari script.  Much like Greek, Persian and Russian, the unfamiliar script is a formidable barrier and Sanskrit may remain a bit of a mystery to me, just on the other side of the veil.



Lord and Lady

One of the things that I find most interesting about analyzing the roots, and therefore, the original meanings of English words is the way in which they tend to change from the functional to the symbolic.  What I mean by this is that English has changed so much over its lifespan that modern English words derived from Old English tend to have undergone contraction and simplification that obscures their original, literal meanings.  These original meanings often tend to be functional and additive in nature, while the modern meanings, divorced from their roots, have no literal meaning and tend to map directly to archetypal images in our brains that, while slightly different for each person, are consistent in their broad outlines.

Lord and Lady are a good example of this.  When I hear the word lord, an image pops into my head of a man who is wealthy, powerful and benevolent.  It makes sense that lord became a synonym for the Christian God in English.  While lady has a few different connotations depending on context, when I hear it connected to lord, as in the formulation “Lord and Lady X,” I think of a similar character: wealthy, refined and charitable.   In both cases, however, there is apparently no substrata to the word; a lord is simply a lord and a lady is simply a lady and everyone understands what those words mean without thinking any more deeply about it.

However, a lord was originally a hlafweard in Old English.  This is a compound word that breaks down into two parts:

hlaf– loaf

weard– keeper or guardian (cognate with modern English warden)

So, lord originally meant something like “loaf warden”.  Things brings a bit of a different image to mind, doesn’t it?  Personally, I see a sort of paranoid medieval petty official, guarding the king’s food supplies against raiders and unruly peasants.

Lady follows a similar pattern.  In Old English the word was hlæfdige, which is a compound form of:

hlaf– loaf

dæge– kneader

So, lady originally meant something like “loaf maker,” bringing it into a tidy, if traditional, relationship to lord.

What I find fascinating here is that, due to the evolution of English over the past ~1,500 years, these original meanings, in all their charming functionality, have been lost and replaced with what I consider to be archetypal symbols.  I don’t know to what extent this happens in other languages.  As I have noted elsewhere, German seems to retain the literal meanings of its words much more clearly than English, which is something I appreciate about the language.  However, I don’t know to what extent German speakers are aware of those meanings on a daily basis as they use the language.




This one has been staring me in the face for a long time, but I didn’t see it.  Regulate is a very common word meaning to control or impose order on something by setting limits.  In other words, to lay down rules and impose punishments or disincentives for breaking them.

What eventually caught my eye about this word is its obvious connection to various Indo-European words related to the concept of kingship.  The root of regulate is reg-, which literally means “a straight line” or “to direct in a straight line;” in other words to rule.  There are numerous cognates of reg- that mean “king” in Indo-European tongues:

  • Rey (Spanish)
  • Raja (Sanskrit)
  • Rex (Latin)
  • (Irish)
  • Re (Italian)

This list is notable in that it is limited to the Celtic, Romance and Indian branches of the tree.  Being a native English speaker, I wondered why we say king and what that says about the differing concepts of kingship within the Indo-European language family.

King, and its relatives in the Germanic language family (König in German, koning in Dutch, kung in Swedish, konungur in Icelandic, etc.) stem from a different Indo-European root altogether, gen-, which means “to give birth.”  This meaning is clear in modern English words such as generate and engender, but there are cognates in numerous Indo-European languages which denote more than the simple fact of being born, but also membership in a tribal or ethnic group:

  • Gente (Spanish)
  • Jánas (Sanskrit)
  • Genus (Latin)
  • Cine (Irish)
  • Genus (Italian)
  • Génos (Greek)

The Indo-European root gen- came into English as kin, meaning “family.”  King is the result of a compound Old English word, cyning, which combines the noun cyn (equivalent to modern English kin), and the suffix -ing.  In this usage, the suffix denotes belonging to or being descended from the noun it follows, a pattern often seen in family and tribal names in the ancient Germanic world (think of the Scyldings from Beowulf).  So cyning literally means something like “member/descendent of the family/tribe.”

Based on the above, it is clear that the Celtic, Romance and Indian words for king are all formed from a root (reg-) that emphasizes the legalistic exercise of executive power, while the root used by the Germanic languages (gen-) emphasizes membership in a group that defines itself through shared descent.

This difference seems to have its origin in the differing political systems found in the cultures themselves.  Ancient Romans, for instance, viewed themselves as being citizens of a state that imposed laws and exacted punishment for breaking them, whereas Germanic tribesmen viewed themselves as being just that; members of a tribe.  Even though the political situation on the ground has changed over time, the ancient distinction between the etymologies of the words remain, much like the silent “gh” in the word “night”.