Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

From Llyfr to Livre to Leaf

I recall reading some years ago that the Celtic languages are more closely related to Latin and its daughter languages than they are to the Germanic languages.  This may seem at first glance to be a bit counterintuitive given the fact that the living Celtic languages are clustered in Northwestern Europe and fairly well surrounded (with the exception of Breton) by English and Germanic languages.

However, in ancient times the Celtic peoples were close neighbors of the Romans.  The history of Rome is littered with wars and strife with the Celtic peoples to their north and west and it was largely the conquest of the Celtic tribes in places like modern day France that brought the Romans into contact with the Germanic peoples further north.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about Celtic history and myth recently.  During this reading I came across a number of words that caught my interest for various reasons.  The one that sticks with me the most is the Welsh word for book, llyfr (with the “f” pronounced like English “v”).  When I first encountered this word I immediately noticed its similarity to the French word for book, livre, but for some reason, I did not pursue it any further.

A few months later, I happened to stumble across the Irish equivalent, leabhar (pronounced, I am told by a native Irish speaker, like “lao-wer”) and fireworks went off in my brain.  The “b” in the Irish word helped me to connect it not only to Welsh and French, but also to the Spanish word for book, libro, and derivative forms such as the English library.  A solid understanding of the word took shape in my mind.

When I say the “word” I don’t mean any of the words I have mentioned above, but rather the triliteral root of l-b/v/f-r.  The different permutations of this “word” show the interrelatedness of and gradual transitions between different languages within the Indo-European language family and serve to drive home the point that these languages are related in a literal, rather than a figurative, way.

Ultimately, all of these words stem from the Indo-European root of leup- / leub- / leubh-, which is generally found in words having to do with things that are loose (such as lips), things that are peeled off (such as the bark of a tree or a leaf).

It gives me great joy to know that this primeval meaning, this base connection to the idea of something that is a slice of something more substantial, has been carried through to modern times in such a consistent way in a series of different but related languages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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