The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: April 2017


Some time ago I translated the comic tale Hreiðars Þáttr from Old Norse into English.  While working on the translation I came across the word þreyta, which piqued my interest.  (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.  Once I did, though, I felt dumb; it is a fairly obvious cognate with the English word threat.

As it turns out, þreyta isn’t exactly equivalent to “threaten” but rather means “to wear out or exhaust.”  Threat goes back to the Old English noun threat, which means “pressure,” and the verb form threatian, “to press,” which connects nicely with þreyta on a thematic level.

Knowing that dental fricatives such as “th” and alveolar plosives such as “t” and “d” often switch places over time and between languages, I considered whether I could think of any other words that contained these letters, along with an “r” in secondary position, and had a connection with the the concept of “pressing.”  It didn’t take long to come up with tread (tredan in Old English, troða in Old Norse, and treten in German) and throttle.  While the literal meaning of tread is “to step on” or “to walk on,” and throttle means “to choke” the connection with applying pressure to something is obvious in both instances.

Old Norse seems particularly rich in words of this type.  In addition to þreyta, there is þraut, which means “hardship,” þrátta, which means “dispute” or “quarrell” and þrúd (as in Þrúdheim, Thor’s hall), which 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 there is a connection in the Germanic language family between the application of pressure or force and 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, and even into Spanish: tratar means “to try” which implies effort and, in a sense, pressure.