12 Aug, 2020

Roots and Routes ….

“Why not write about books that have meant something to you, books that you’ve really  enjoyed?”.   It was an interesting idea.  Thank you, Chris.  And so the thinking cap went on.

Criteria?  How to decide?  Lifetime pleasure, perhaps?  Or a particular help at a particular time?  An occasional trusty support?  Impressive literacy?  Spellbinding fiction?  Engrossing non-fiction?  Well, I decided it doesn’t really matter.  Anything that made some impression, with a little story around it, would do.

Rather to my surprise then, the first was the anthology of poetry, blog 28 July, and the second the fictional ‘secret diary’, blog 2 August.  Today’s is again surprising.  It’s a dictionary, the “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language”.  Many years ago Herman, an Oxford academic gave it to me.  I’d first met him and his family in Saudi Arabia and we then learned that we all had an earlier past in the Sudan. Decades of camaraderie followed.

There’s nothing special about the core dictionary.  The reason for the gift was the Appendix: a 55-page dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the sounds that formed part of the languages of our earliest ancestors, and how those sounds have preserved their original meaning while travelling in different geographical directions and through different peoples over millennia.

I need to say right now that what follows is NOT academic in any way.  The appendix has been a layman’s pleasure and a delight to browse though over the years, that’s all.  If anyone wants to get deeply into the origins of our language then they should go elsewhere.  Also, my copy is the 1979 edition, so scholarship and research might have revealed more since then.

The relationship between languages can be traced backwards in history.  English is one of the wide range of Indo-European languages whose journey leads ultimately to a tongue that must have existed even though we have no direct evidence: Proto-Indo-European (P-I-E).  In the Appendix it is suggested that P-I-E might have been spoken in the fifth millennium BC.  Inside the back cover of the dictionary is a chart showing the family of languages.  English is at the left, mid height.  To see it more clearly click here to download a PDF.

So what’s so interesting about this?  For me it’s the way a basic sound – a linguistic root – with its original meaning, has travelled in different directions through that huge family and has  arrived in our current English language, influenced in so many different ways and forming so many different words during the journey.  Here are a few:

P-I-E: “ka” – “to like, to desire”.  One journey to English was via Latin carus, so we have caress,  charity, cherish.  The other route of the root was via the Germanic family, still linked to the original meaning, but now whore.

P-I-E:  “dheu”“to rise in a cloud” from which we have fumigate, perfume, thurifer, typhus.

P-I-E:  “wel” – “to turn, to roll”.  Through the Germanic journey we have waltz and whelk and others; and along the Latin path, vault, volume, possibly valley and many more.

P-I-E: “bhel” –“ to shine, flash, burn”.  And so via many meanderings to bleach, blaze, blush.

P-I-E: “gel” – “to turn into a ball”.  Our Roman forebears provided globe, agglomerate and more, while the Germanic heritage gives us clump, clod, cloud, clasp, clutch.

This probably isn’t of interest to many, but it does fascinate me.  In the fourth paragraph above I said there was nothing special about the core dictionary.  That’s true but it does provide, for almost every English word, a Proto-Indo–European root.  Time after time I’ve been curious about simple and not-so-simple English words, so I’ve consulted the main part of the dictionary, have then found the root in the Appendix, and have followed it through.

It’s just a mild hobby but it’s rewarding for me.  The dictionary is a fascinating resource.  That’s why it’s here.


  1. What a wonderful name you have! I had to look up the way your name was probably pronounced in the fifth millennium B.C., according to Professor Calvert Watkins of Harvard and his team. The following information comes from page 1532 of their American Heritage Dictionary. The Proto Indo European people would have called you ‘PAG’ and it meant ‘to fasten things together’. People who spoke English 1000 years ago are thought to have pronounced it ‘FANG’, not the word meaning ‘tooth’, but another word meaning ‘booty’ or ‘fastening someone else’s possessions for yourself’. Thank heavens that word did not survive into modern English! But the original ‘PAG’ did survive into Latin where it had become ‘PAX’ and was then borrowed into English with the meaning of peace.

  2. So glad, again, you’re doing this! Yet another fascinating post – thank you. Sounds a truly awesome book! Reminded me of being struck by obvious similarities in Nepali language to English, despite geographic and cultural distances.. Aamaa, baa (ma, pa); mero naam (my name); ek, dui, tin.. saat, aat, nau, dos (1, 2, 3…7, 8, 9, 10). But differences of course (4, 5, 6 = chha panch chaa).. Love the family tree – hadn’t realised that Romany is Indic. I happen to be reading wonderful ‘Wales’ by Jan Morris – she tackles Brythonic / Goedelic brilliantly.

    Hope you’re able to get out and exercise your housemaid’s knees and feet, even in torrents? X

    PS – Hello Herman! Long time no speak… Great stuff about Pag / Fang / Pax above!!


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