The Creative Exploration of Language

Category Archives: 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.
















I recently came across a relic of my childhood that I had forgotten: the ridiculous commercial extolling the virtues of cheese that I have always thought of as “Hanker for a Hunk o’ Cheese”.  When I watched the video on YouTube I was transported back to the early 80’s in a way that I found a bit startling.  As far as I can recall, this was the most commonly played commercial during Saturday morning cartoons.

Beyond the memory shock and amusement of seeing the commercial again, I got thinking about the word hanker and what it meant.  As with many of the words that I end up exploring, the meaning of hanker, “to desire” or “to want”, is clear to most native English speakers, but it gets used rarely and generally only in specific contexts.  In this case, that context is related to food or drink.   In other words, hanker seems at first glance to be a variant form of hunger, but with a clear twist that is worth exploring.

When I looked into it, I found that the word represents a nice poetic metaphor for unfulfilled desire.  Hanker comes from the Dutch word hankeren, meaning “to hang”, while the Dutch word for hunger is honger.  The fact that the two words are so closely related makes the metaphorical aspect of hanker clear.  To hanker for something is to be tormented or punished by the lack of something.  This connection between hanging and lacking can also be used in more mundane contexts, such as in the phrase, “I left him hanging.”

I particularly like the symbolism of hanging, as this is often equated with an initiatory ordeal that involves deprivation and suffering, following which the person undergoing the experience receives special status or knowledge.  A few diverse examples of this that come to mind are the symbolism associated with the Hanged Man tarot card, Odin hanging on the tree Yggdrasil for nine nights without food or water in order to obtain the runes and the tribal initiation ritual undergone by Richard Harris’s character in the film A Man Called Horse.

In the end, I’m guessing the makers of the commercial chose to use hanker for simple alliterative purposes and because it fit with their vision of the commercial’s Wild West setting.  That said, now that I have thought through the more subtle meaning of the word, I find its use even more amusing.

But was the campaign successful in its main mission?  The answer, I think, is both yes and no.  I like cheese just fine, but I don’t hanker for it.


The Trouble with English


Occasionally, when I am struggling through a non-English text, it occurs to me just how nonsensical my native language truly is.  I don’t mean it, however, in the way that this comment is usually made, in relation to the many irregularities in the way English words are spelled and conjugated.  While I do find these issues annoying, they can be mastered through simple repetition.  What truly frustrates me about English is the chaotic relationship between sound and meaning.

Due to the heavy influx of non-native words into English over the course of its history, a large percentage of our vocabulary has been standardized in a way that does not give a hint, either explicitly or implicitly, of its deeper meaning.  For instance, what does the words surprise mean?  This is a common word and most people would not be at a loss for an answer to my question.  But what if I persisted on going one level deeper by pointing out that surprise is made up of two distinct parts, sur– and –prise.  What do those parts mean?  This question is not easily answered by anyone who lacks a strong knowledge of Latin.

These are questions that native speakers of German would generally not need to ask themselves.  In German, the word for surprise (in noun form) is die Überraschung.  This word also breaks down into two parts, über– and –raschung.  However, to a German speaker, the individual parts of the word have meanings that are understandable or at least potentially so: über means “over” and raschung is part of a complex of words beginning with rasch– or ras– that all imply something like a “quick, intense disturbance”.  Other such words are:

  • rasch- “quick”
  • rascheln- “to rustle”
  • rasen– “to rave” or “to rage”
  • rasend– “terrific” (in the sense of “intense”, e.g., a terrific thirst)
  • der Rasende– “maniac”
  • die Raserei– “fury”

This connection appears to hold even when the first vowel is altered to the au diphthong, as evidenced by the words below:

  • der Rausche– “intoxication”
  • rauschen– “to roar” (if water), “to rustle” (if woods), “to hiss” (radio)
  • das Rauschgift– “intoxicating drug”
  • rausfliegen– “to be chucked out”
  • räusspern– “to clear one’s throat”
  • rausschmeißen- “to chuck out”
  • der Rausschmeißer- “bouncer”

It is not my contention that the average German speaker consciously considers these other words or concepts when hearing or using die Überraschung, but I do believe that there is a subconscious effect.  What I mean here is that the connotations of quickness and intense disturbance become imprinted on the mind of German speakers such that when they hear the particular combination of sounds that are present in a word like die Überraschung, a subtle impression of the sense carried by the entire complex of words is brought to mind.  It doesn’t seem to me that surprise can generate the same web of related images and impressions for an English speaker.  This is because the word has only an explicit meaning, at least to non-Latin speakers, which is nearly everyone.

To give an even more direct example, the English word secret is derived from the Latin secretus, meaning “hidden”, and is nearly isolate in the English dictionary.  The only similar word that comes to mind is secrete, which has a very different meaning from secret, though both ultimately find their source in secern, which means something like “to sift apart”.  I might render this in modern terms as “to compartmentalize”.

The German word for secret is das Geheimnis, which clearly contains the word das Heim, meaning “home”.  In German, therefore, a secret is something which is kept within, or not talked about outside of, the home.  The connection between these two words is clear and direct in a way that simply doesn’t exist for an English speaker encountering the word secret.  This isn’t to say that English words derived from a foreign source cannot generate a complex of related meanings, but rather that when it is able to do so it begins from a point of limitation (because there are fewer words that share its sound pattern) and confusion (because the constituent parts of the word are not clearly understandable), which limits its possibilities in this regard.

This distinction between the explicit and implicit meanings of words reminds me of Alfred Korzybski’s well-known formulation “the map is not the territory”, which was also much discussed by Robert Anton Wilson.  Through this lens, the explicit meaning of a word is the map, which is a utilitarian tool for gaining information on a subject, but nothing more.  The implicit meaning of a word would then be equivalent to the territory, the relatively boundless space that is represented by the map.

What I like bout the map-territory metaphor is that it makes clear that the difference between the two is experience.  For example, looking at a map of Sweden can give you certain information the country, but actually being there and hearing the sounds, smelling the smells and seeing the architecture and the life of the people allows you to feel Sweden, and, I would argue, to begin to understand it.

Here lies the trouble with the English language, in my opinion.  Due to its varied etymology, its system of implicit meaning is discordant and largely broken because it lacks consistent connections between sound and meaning.  This has a detrimental effect on the experience one has when using the language, as one is not able to access the web of connections that would be provided by a more consistent etymology.

What do you think?  Do you agree?  What other languages do you know and how are sound and meaning correlated in that language?

Please let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading,

S.R. Hardy