April 9, 2017
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I’ve been working on a translation of the comic tale Hreiðars Þáttr from Old Norse and stumbled on the word þreyta (the letter þ is called “thorn” and is a voiceless dental fricative pronounced like modern English “th” in “think”. It has a voiced counterpart called “eth” that is written ð and pronounced as “th” in “this”). I didn’t recognize þreyta and had to look it up, but once I did, I felt dumb; it is a fairly obvious cognate with the English word threat.
As it turns out, threat goes back to the Old English noun threat, which means “pressure,” and the verb form threatian, “to press.” Knowing that dental fricatives such as “th” often change to or from alveolar plosives such as “t” and “d,” I considered whether I could think of any other words that fit this pattern and quickly came up with tread (tredan in Old English, troða in Old Norse, and treten in German). While the literal meaning of tread is “to step on” or “to walk on,” the connection with applying pressure to something is obvious. Throttle is similar in that the three key elements are present and the connection to the theme of applying pressure is obvious.
This pattern seems particularly rich in Old Norse, where the word þreyta means “to wear out or exhaust.” Þraut means “hardship,” þrátta means “dispute” or “quarrell” and þrúd (as in Þrúdheim, Thor’s hall) means “power” or “might.” This vein runs so deep in Old Norse that Þra- is a common element of compound words indicating persistence or obstinance (e.g., þrálátr=”stubborn”).
Based on this, it seems that the concept of the application of applying pressure or force is denoted in the Germanic language family by the following series of sounds:
- voiceless dental fricative (“th” as in “think”) or alveolar plosive (“t” or “d”)
- alveolar trill (“r”)
- alveolar plosive (“t” or “d”)
I was able to find an Indo-European connection to this theme quite easily with the IE root tred-, which means “to drill” and is connected widely to various words in the Indian and Slavic branches of the language family. I don’t know where I fall on the ongoing debate related to sound symbolism in language, but the “genetic” connection within language families seems to be indisputable.