The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: November 2012


One can often make speculative but very interesting assumptions about the relationships between words within the same language or language family based on similarities in the sound and placement of consonants.  The reason consonant sounds are the key is that they tend to remain relatively static over time and to change their pronunciation less between different dialects and languages than do vowel sounds, which change with every regional accent one encounters.

As an example of the relative stability of consonants, consider Germanic cognates for the English word house: haus in German, huis in Dutch and Afrikaans and hus in the Scandinavian languages.  All of these words demonstrate the foundational elements of an initial ‘h’ and final ‘s’ with a vowel or diphthong in the middle.  There are many such examples, and I won’t belabor the issue further other than to point out that these relationships are not always obvious due to changes in the way consonants and consonant clusters are treated as languages evolve over time.

I got onto this line of thinking when I encountered the word donker, which means ‘dark’ in both Dutch and Afrikaans.  From here, it was an easy leap to connect this word to its German cousin dunkel, which has the same meaning.  There seemed to me to be a pattern in Germanic languages in which words for ‘dark’ were anchored by an initial ‘d’ sound and an ‘nk’ cluster.  So far, so good.

However, when I attempted to complete the transfer into English, I encountered an obstacle, in that ‘dark’ does not follow this pattern.  It has an initial ‘d’, but rather than having an ‘nk’ consonant cluster, it has ‘rk’.

After doing some research, I established that ‘dark’ evolved from a different root word, Old English deorc, which was a more metaphorical term that had the connotation of being hidden or obscure.  As it turns out, the English word that fits the overall Germanic pattern best is ‘dank’.

‘Dank’ is interesting in this context because it carries with it not only a connotation of being dark, but also of being wet and, for that matter, cold.  Next, I searched for other Germanic cognates that might line up more closely with “dank’ and found one in the first place I looked: the Old Norse word dökk, which is an adjective meaning ‘dark’ and is used in many compound expressions such as dökk-hárr (‘dark hair’)However, as a noun, it had the meaning of ‘pool’ or  ‘water hole’, which ties the two concepts of darkness and wetness together.

From an auditory perspecitve, the reason that dökk can be considered to be cognate with ‘dank’ is that in Old Norse (and in modern Scandinavian languages) the ‘n’ sound before the ‘ngk’ consonant cluster has been lost.  As an example, the English word ‘drink’ translates into modern Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish as drekka, drikke and dricka, respectively.

This now brings us to an interesting point in that the question of what the connection is between darkness and water seems to be relevant.    As I have indicated in other posts, I have noticed a tendency for the root meanings of works to hark back to primordial conceptions that often have much in common with religious or esoteric ideas.

In this case, the primordial esoteric concept being evoked is that of ‘the waters’, which are a symbol of potential, reflecting the ancient conception (and echoed in modern scientific explanations of life) that all thing arise from water.

Darkness and water therefore represent, in a deep linguistic sense, the concept of potential (viewed positively) or chaos (viewed negatively).  In both cases, principle acts to obscure or hide things that are under development; out of water comes life and out of darkness comes light.