I’ve been wondering about the word future for a while. In other Germanic languages it tends to be made up of two parts, the first meaning something like “to” or “forward” and the second meaning “to come” in the Continental languages or “time” in Scandinavia. Here are some examples:
- zukunft (German)
- toekomst (Dutch)
- toekoms (Afrikaans
- framtida (Swedish)
- fremtid (Danish)
- framtid (Norwegian)
- framtíð (Icelandic)
Initially, I assumed that this was simply a case of English using a French loan word where its Germanic cousins had retained the native word. This view was perhaps strengthened by my knowledge of the word futuro in Spanish.
I let the matter rest there for a few weeks until one day I recalled that there is another way to say future in Spanish, porvenir, which follows the Germanic model and can be read literally as “for to come”. After a bit of research I discovered that the same situation exists in French, which has both futur and avenir.
This rekindled my interest in future and I began digging into its etymology. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as straightforward as I had expected. It came into English through French, which got it from Latin. It seems to have begun as an irregular form of the word esse, which means “to be” and can be seen in words such as essence and its derivatives.
Before the adoption of future, English had a native word for the concept, toweard, which follows the Germanic model and has some interesting connections. The second element of the word, –weard, comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *wert, which means “to turn.” Both the word and meaning survive in a functional way in modern English as the suffix –ward in words such as forward and backward. So, in Old English the future was something that one turned into.
However, -weard has a far more interesting set of connections that radiate out from its PIE root. In English, this is best exemplified by the word wyrd, which is generally translated as “fate” and is cognate with the Old Norse word urdr. This allows a poetic reading of toweard as something like “turning into fate” which I find appealing.
The other connection that jumps out at me is the German word werden, which means “to become” and is used as an auxiliary verb to form the future tense. For example, in German, “We are eating” is “Wir essen” while “We will eat” is “Wir werden essen.”
As regular readers will know, I love to keep digging and make these kinds of connections that allow me to consider the different angles and shades of meaning of a word. However, this “archeological” approach sometimes leads me to miss the forest for the trees.
In this case, it was only at the end of my investigations that I realized the word toweard had, in fact, never left English at all. It survives, very recognizably, as toward, shorn of its larger meaning and reduced to the status of a preposition.