Episode 6: Indo-European Words

A look at words used by the original Indo-Europeans and the clues such words provide to the identity of the first Indo-Europeans.  The etymology of modern English words is explored in relation to the original Indo-European words.


36 thoughts on “Episode 6: Indo-European Words

  1. Hopefully I can say this without being rude because I am loving this podcast. I am very interested to learn why the presenter sometimes pronounces words differently than I do (Southern Alberta, Canada.) Such as the L in words like Old (Owd/Owed is what I hear) and Golf (gough, like cough is what I heard). Its even more interesting that the presenter seems to know this, when saying ‘pen’ ‘kin’ ‘keen’ they spelled it afterwards like they knew their e’s sounded like I’s and vice versa!

    • Hi Nick. The best answer I can give you is that my accent is simply different from yours. At various points in the podcast, I try to explore why accents develop and why various accents pronounce certain sounds differently. This topic will be explored in much greater detail in future episodes which will explore the development of Modern English.

      • Well said Kevin! Our accent is something we absorb from those around us. We can modify in in adult life but can we really explain it? I think of some Scottish actors who lose all trace of their accent when playing a role, yet in an interview they revert to being Scots.

      • The pronounciaton i notice is”ing-lish and lang- wige” I an accustomed to “in-glish and lan-gwige”. I am from the southwest US Mexican border area where we are growing our own Spanglish.

        • Haha, nice. I travel the US for work and occasionally get to go to Canada, too. One of my favorite things is to pay attention to the minute differences in pronunciations. I appreciate your comment, Nancy, because I hadn’t thought specifically of those distinctions. I also say “lang-gwige.” But for “English,” I pronounce it “ing-glish.” For the record I’m from Minnesota. 🙂

          Nick, to reply to you, I have been enjoying the same differences you mentioned. I pronounce “old,” “golf,” and “pen” the same as you, I think. However, when I was in Alberta for work, I noticed people pronouncing a’s differently than me. “That” would sound more like “thaht” to me. And “camping” more like “cahmping” or even “cemping.” Also, “phone me” often replaced “call me”, “washroom” was more common than “bathroom,” and at fast-food restaurants the question would often be “to go or to stay” rather than “for here or to go.” It’s great. Part of me was worried that accents were a thing of the past in our globalized world, so I was delighted to find genuine differences that reflect the unique pronunciation traditions that have developed.

          Needless to say I’m excited to get to the portion of the podcast where we explore modern English pronunciations/accents.

          Kevin, I really appreciate the podcast. You do a great job, and it’s so awesome to be able to use my time in the car to learn about this fascinating (and some would say nerdy) subject. I love it! I’ve been trying to deduce where you are from based on your pronunciations and I think it must be the southeastern US…maybe Georgia… Am I close?

          • You are very close. I am originally from eastern North Carolina, though I spent about 30 years in the Raleigh-Durham area where thick southern accents are rarely heard.

            By the way, the most recent episode (#113) looks at some of the modern distinctions between northern and southern accents in England. I will focus on accents in more detail when I get to the Modern English period.

    • L before a stop takes many different forms in English dialects. It is very common crosslinguistically for the approximant L to become vocalised as a W-like sound, usually changing the character of the previous vowel (either to a diphthong or just a different, more rounded, monophthong). You see this, for example, if you compare Italian and French – e.g., IT alter – FR autre ‘other’ or IT caldo – FR chaud ‘hot’. You see it also within Germanic languages. For example, you mentioned ‘old’, note the Scots ‘auld’ (as in auld lang syne’) and Dutch ‘oud’, the former realised as a monophthong but the latter pronounced with a sharper ‘ow!’ diphthong.

      I can also say that through my in-laws who are from the West Coast, there is another, more modern realisation of V + l + C – a simple lengthening of the vowel with the elimination of the approximant – e.g., walk becomes [wa:k], which I relentlessly make fun of since West Coast people think they have no accent.

  2. I found this episode very enriching. I happen to be an English language teacher and sometimes when students ask about those irregular plural forms, you don’t know what to answer and end up saying ” that’s the way it is”. In this episode I found the reason why and I will not hesitate to tell my students where those weird forms come from.

  3. Hello, I’m enjoying your podcast very much. I did have a comment for you about the formation of plurals in Old English. You said that

    “at some point after Old English, English adopted the modern rules for making words plural.That included the general rule that the way to make a singular word plural is to add an ‘s’ or ‘es’ at the end and pretty much all newer nows follow this rule.”

    This does not strike me as strictly accurate on two accounts.

    1. Old English had several ways to decline nouns to form the plural and one of them was to ad ‘as’ to a word. This is the old English form of the modern plural rule.

    2. The word for ‘fox’ is an old Saxony word and not a newer word at all. The reason why we say foxes instead of foxen is because the root word for fox simply fell into the class of nouns that declined with an ‘as’ and not an ‘en’ (see https://hord.ca/projects/eow/grammar/noun.php?id=592&output=macron)

    Do you have a

    • Paul,

      Thanks for the feedback. Your observations are correct. I was trying to simplify a complicated process in that one sentence. I discuss the evolution of plural suffixes in some detail in Episode 53.

  4. I’m listening to this series again from the beginning. I have already listened up to the beginning of the old English period, then had to stop for unrelated reasons. I didn’t want to lose the flow, so I decided to start back at the beginning. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy this podcast. It ticks all the boxes for me – erudite, accessible, unpretentious, interesting and well spoken. Thank you so much for the time and energy you pour into this remarkable podcast.

  5. I got sidetracked and started listening to the podcast all over again. I mention this because in one the episodes, I disremember which, you used the word “further” and pronounced it like “mother.” I’m curious what part of the US you’re from It strikes me as mid-western, but I’m no expert in this matter. Thanks and I hope this isn’t too personal a question. (And I just like the word disremember, for any prescriptivists out there.)

    • Hi Sandra,

      I’m from eastern North Carolina, and my native accent drops the ‘r’ in “further.” I have to consciously remember to pronounce the ‘r’ when I come to that word in the podcast. Believe it or not, there are a lot of words like that. I struggle to pronounce “cavalry” as /ca-vel-ree/ and not /cal-va-ree/. Most of us have those little accent quirks, but we don’t realize that they exist until people point them out to us (which is what happened when I started to do the podcast 🙂 ).

  6. Hi Kevin.
    thanks for your interesting podcast. I really love it.
    I just want to make you notice that unfortunately on the smarthphone android version (I use acast as podcast app, anyway) this episode (6) doesn’t work and even if it is downloaded you can’t listen to). It’s a pity. Anyway, just to let you know, good luck!

    • Thanks for the note. I don’t know why that issue is occurring. (I haven’t received any other feedback about that problem, so I am not sure if other listeners are experiencing the same problem.) I will look into it and see if I find a solution.

  7. Hi , this is a great podcast!! However, during this particular podcast, you referred to “shaving” a sheep, but I’m pretty sure it should be “shearing”. Keep up the great work.

  8. Kevin this is really an incredible series. Ever since I took the time to study the Dutch language (because many of my work colleagues were Dutch at the time) and noted so many similarities with English I have been interested in finding out more about the origin and history of English – – I actually did a lot of looking around including courses on line but found your series and it is perfect! Truly appreciate the way you break things down – I am only on episode 6 but there have been “aha” moments in every one! Really looking forward to getting through all of them in time.

  9. First off, well done! I really appreciate your hard work and diligence. I’m confused by what you said about the PIE root for “bear,” though. From what I gather, “bear” comes from the Proto-Germanic “*bʰer-,” meaning “brown;” this word departs from the PIE root for bear, “*h₂ŕ̥tḱos” (becoming “arktos” and “ursus” in Greek and Latin, respectively).

    While the “brown/*bʰer-” root remains disputed by some (who usually connect the root instead to PIE’s “*ǵʰwer-,” meaning “wild animal”), I favor it; sociolinguistically, calling bears “the brown ones” could point to the “*h₂ŕ̥tḱos” root becoming taboo. In other words, saying the true word for bear could summon the animal and its wrath.
    This explanation goes well with one of my favorite words in Latin: lupus. The root comes from an Oscan-Umbrian language, from Proto-Italic *lukʷos, metathesis of Proto-Indo-European *wĺ̥kʷos. Osco-Umbrian regularly changes Proto-Indo-European */kʷ/ into /p/, which indicates that the word was borrowed rather than directly inherited from Proto-Italic. Really, the Latin word should render as something like “quulquus,” but I like to presume that the use of “lupus” instead comes from another instance of naming taboos.

    • Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for the comments. I assume you are inquiring about the original PIE pronunciation of “bear.” I reviewed the transcript for the episode, and it appears that the only reference I made to the word “bear” in the episode is that its modern pronunciation is very similar to the pronunciation of the reconstructed PIE version of the word. It has been several years since I prepared this episode (and thus several years since I did the research), so I am not sure if I was referring to the noun “bear” or the verb “to bear.” Either way, the “American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots” edited by Calvert Watkins identifies the reconstructed PIE root as *bher in both cases (though they were distinct words in the PIE language). That is probably the root word to which I was referring. As I have noted in other episodes, there is considerable disagreement about some of those reconstructed roots. I am not a linguist, so I don’t tend to advocate for one interpretation over another. I try to stick to my primary sources, but I also acknowledge that other interpretations have merit as well. Thanks again for the feedback.

    • Yes, another nice example that the real bear’s name shouldn’t have been spoken aloud are the slavic languages, where bear has got an innocent name “medvěd” (Czech), i.e. “honey eater” (med jed).

  10. Kevin,

    I am so happy I stumbled upon this. I was a history major late in life (in my 60s,) and feel as if I have so much to catch up on.

    These episodes have given me so much joy.

    Thank you so much!

    • Hi Kevin, I am enjoying your podcast no end. It’s so scholarly, funny and thorough! Thought you might like to know that in current parlance in the field of musical theatre, the “re” spelling is used to refer to the art form we practice. The “er” spelling of theater refers to the building in which we practice that art. Thus, “I’m heading to the theater. I mostly play classical piano but I dabble in musical theatre.” If some folks use that latter spelling to impart a touch of class as you suggest, it’s not working because we are a bunch of classless ruffians.

  11. Been listening every night and even sharing findings with my primary school class. This is really interesting listening for me. Thank you

  12. Found this by chance ,and am hooked .However I am only on episode 6 ! An unbelievable effort . I am just a history nerd , this is very much to my taste ??? . Looking forward to the discussion on the Irish language.
    County Clare Ireland

  13. You mention that the existence of the words for bee and (honey-based) mead in Proto-Indoeuropean, indicate that Proto-Indoeuropeans must have originated from a place with honeybees, meaning that it must have been somewhere west of the Ural mountains. Could you elaborate more on why it must be west of the Ural Mountains, as many other bee cultivation practices exist to the east of it (such as China)?

    • Hi Tara. My understanding is that honeybees did not exist east of the Ural Mountains within the time frame that the original Proto-Indo-European language was spoken (4500BC-2500BC). Of course, honeybees expanded and migrated into eastern Asia over time, but they were not there in those earlier centuries. Again, that is based on the research of linguists and other scholars who have tried to piece the evidence together.

  14. I have just recently discovered the podcasts and find them fascinating. As someone from England with knowledge of German, Dutch and even some Latin in school, the in do European connections are very clear. Since I am only at Episode 5 I realize a lot more detail is to come, but I was struck by the implication of the geographic location not being by the modern “sea”. A “mere” is common in my part of England as a lake, and “meer” is in Dutch and German.
    Thank you for this making this podcast available.

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