Using philology and etymology to investigate our language

I just thought it would be interesting to give a bit of background on philology (the study of ancient linguistic texts) historico-linguistics(the study of the history and development of languages) and etymology (the history of individual words). However, before we start, just for the laymen out there, here are some examples of certain phonological changes which show how languages can be related to each other.

Here’s a little quiz… Try and guess the English cognates of the following French words. They have changed very little in most of the cases, but you still need to put your thinking cap on… Each of the three lines represent a different phonological change, 3 in all… and the very last word has had two big phonological changes… (Tip. When you’ve found the rule, try to ignore the vowels for the most part, they are much more fluid and subject to change. The answers are found at the very bottom of this post)…

école, étude, écureuil, échelle, écharpe, écharde, écran, écumer, Écosseforêt, enquête, bête, fête, hâter, maître, plâtre, pâté, râper, conquête, huître, côte, hôtel, rôtigarderobe, Guillaume, garantie, guerrier, gauffre, guichet, guêpe

So, how do we know languages are related? By analysing different languages via philology, linguists were able to work out that many languages had a common root. For instance, it was obvious that English, Dutch, German, Danish and Swedish for example, are from a common root, because certain words closely resemble each other.

English drink
Dutch drinken
German trinken
Danish drikke
Swedish dricka

English winter
Dutch winter
German Winter
Danish vinter
Swedish vinter

English foot
Dutch voet
German Fusz
Danish fod
Swedish fot

But as linguists began to dig deeper and deeper, and to look further and further into the past, they realised that not only were the Germanic languages related to each other, but that the Germanic languages were also in turn related to the Romance langugaes (French, Italian, Spanish), the Slavic Languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak), the Celtic Languages (Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic), Greek, and even the Indian and Iranian (Indo-Aryan) languages (Hindi, Gujurati, Punjabi, Urdu and Ancient Sanskrit). The study of the history and origins of languages (historico-linguistics), and the study of the specific history of individual words (etymology) were born.

Needless to say, this was a huge discovery when it was first proposed, but unfortunately led to theories of not only racial, but linguistic purity, such as the Nazi theory that the German Language was the original “Aryan” language. It has also led to some ignorant myths, such as that all European langugaes come from Latin, Greek or Sanskrit, or that one or another language is closer to the “original language” than others.

In reality though, all the Indo-European languages did indeed come from one common ancestor which linguists call Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. It is a theoretical language, derived from a back-tracking of available data in the records of all Indo-European languages. It is also subject to change when new data are collected.

One amazing discovery, in 1906 was a set of Hittite tablets which were written in the cuneiform alphabet developped by the Akkadians… but the language itself was not Akkadian, neither was it related to Akkadian. Some time after 1906, a Czech linguist called Bedrich Hrozny deciphered the tablets and identified the Hittite language as a descendant of the Indo-European family. What was especially amazing about these tablets, was that certain words were very similar to English, notably, “watar” meaning “water” and “ettsa” meaning “to eat” (Old High German “ettsen“, Modern German “essen“, Dutch “eet“). far from being a coincidence, these and other words clinched the idea that Ancient Hittite was an Indo-European language.

Excited with his discovery, Hrozny wrote a a book entitled: “The Language of the Hittites; Its Structure and Its Membership in the Indo-European Linguistic Family.”… here is a quotation from that book, which demonstrates his excitement over his new discovery:

“The excavator who finds golden treasure and the mummies of long dead kings is not the only one who experiences that moment of illumination when he seems to lay his hand on the very past. The same thrill can come to a man sitting bent over books in his study, pondering a single sentence, until suddenly he feels that shudder of awe which voices from immemorial tombs evoke. There is more to such a matter than dry philology. For does not ‘water’, uttered as a cry in a desert landscape, mean parching thirst? Vadar, water, Wasser – how staggering it is to realise that with three thousand years intervening, a Frisian living on the North Sea coast of Germany and a Pennsylvania Dutchman of eastern North America would understand a Hittite’s cry of thirst!”
The Language of the Hittites; Its Structure and Its Membership in the Indo-European Linguistic Family.

– Bedrich Hrozny

In 1822, Jakob Grimm, one of the famous Brothers Grimm, discovered that certain specific phonological changes occur in certain Indo-European languages.

For instance:

English foot
Old English fo:t
Gothic fotus
Old Icelandic (Old Norse) fo:tr
Old High German fuoz
German Fuss
Dutch voet

Hittite pata
Luvian pati

Latin pe:s, pedis
French pied
Italian piede
Spanish pie

Greek p?d? (podi)
Sanskrit pá:t, pá:dam
Avestan pad

In most branches, the word “foot” begins with a “p”, whereas in all Germanic variations on the word, it begins with an “f”… Therefore, with the other data that we can gather, at the time when the Proto-Germanic language split from the rest, “p” began to be pronounced “f”… and its not so difficult to see why the “p” is related to the “f” when you look at words like “phase” and “phantom” (even though the phenomenon here is different).

These and many other data support this theory of PIE “p” to Germanic “f”. (Dutch seems to have gone one step further by voicing the “f” to a “v”). Another thing to notice, is that the second consonant of all the words above is either “t”, “d”… (with this time, German going a step further and affricating the “t” to “s”). This rule was surprisingly regular, and came to be known as Grimm’s Law.

English father
Middle English fader
Old English faeder
Swedish, Norwegian, Danish fader
Dutch vader
German Vater

Latin pater
Spanish, Italian padre
French père
Portuguese pai

Greek pateras
Sanskrit pitar
Hindi pitar

It’s so rewarding to stare at a set of Indo-European words and then suddenly see them come into sharp focus when you notice the English cognates. Particularly when its a leter that was present in an older Anglo-Saxon form of the word or if its a silent letter. eg. “know” being related to the German “kennen“, Greek “gnostic“, Latin “cognoscere” which gave birth to Italian “conoscere” and French “connaître“. “Connaître” and “know” are not even recognisable as cognates, but history tells us differently.
It blows your mind when you first learn that Sanskrit “jna“, Urdu and Punjabi “janna“, Russian “znat” all meaning “to know” are directly related to their English cognate “know”…… or when you trace the etymological roots of all the numbers from 1 to 10 in all of the Indo-European languages. The centuries and millenia of time that it takes for these changes to happen takes your breath away.

By analysing literally millions of words from thousands of languages, a “family tree” of IE languages came to be formulated.


Indo-European languages are spoken by approximately 3 billion people earthwide. Among the 10 most widely spoken are Spanish, English (300 million speakers each) Hindi/Urdu , Bengali, Portuguese and Russian (180 million speakers each) and German (with about 100 million speakers)

The non-Indo-European languages in the top 10, Chinese with its 900 million speakers, Arabic with its 174 million speakers, and Japanese with its 125 million speakers, are somewhat confined in their use to their various territories.

Amazingly though, the 443 Indo-European languages that presently exist and dominate the world, had a humble beginning as a small collection of bronze-age tribes wich inhabited the area around the Black Sea. About 5500 years ago, the Indo-European People emerged from this area.


All languages have derivitives of the word “ke-klo” (or “kwe-kwlo“) meaning, “wheel”, or “to rotate”, evidently an invention of this period of time, since all indo-european languages have a derivitive of this ancient word.

English wheel
Old English hweogol / hweol
Old Norse hvel
Old Swedish hiughl
Old Frisian hwel
Middle Dutch weel
Greek kykl-os “circle, wheel”
Latin cycl-os “wheel”
Sankrit cakram (caklam) “circle, wheel,”
Slavic kolo “wheel”
Greek pol-os “a round axis” (PIE *kw- becomes Gk. p- before some vowels)
Latin cult-us “to turn around, tend, cultivate,”
Rus. kol-eso “wheel”


You begin to see the emergence of the main Indo-European language families here. A proto-Germanic people in purple, proto-Celtic in green, proto-Italic in navy-blue, proto-Slavic in orange, and proto-Greek in yellow. Although at this time, the most powerful Indo-European civilisation was the Hittites in light-brown. The BMAC (Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex) civilisation in red, was the Indo-European succesor of the Indus Valley Civilisations, and the origin of the present-day Indian and Iranian languages. The Vedas started to be written in Sanskrit round about this time.


The Indo-European language families enter fully into the common historical record about 500 years before Christ. The Celtic peoples dominated in the West, and the Indo-Iranians in the East. The Vedas were completed at this time. Although the Celtic people had a large empire-like civilisation and dominated Europe socially, politically and technologically, unfortunately, little is known about them, because they did not develop a common writing system.


Greek became the language of civilisation in this period, quickly followed by Latin as the Greek civilisation was overshadowed by the Roman Empire. Latin borrowed heavily from Greek in this period, as Greek still had a somewhat special status. The once great Celtic civilisation was conquered slowly by both the Latinate Roman civilisation (blue) and the Germanic tribes and reduced to a scattering of “Brittoni”, in the northern parts of the Britih Isles and Ireland. Brutal Anglo-Saxon invasions forced some Celtic Britons to migrate down to France to form the Breton people of Brittany. Baltic and Slavic languages also started to expand in this time. Greek was again reduced to a small area but continued to enjoy a certain prestige.


By 1500 AD, the Germanic Anglo-Saxons had finished their invadion of Southern Britain, renaming it “England” or, “the land of the Angles”. Vulgar Latin had split into Spanish, Italian and French, which had massive Celtic and Germanic influence although being a Latinate language.

The Germanic Danes and Vikings from Scandinavia, invaded many parts of Northern Europe, particularly leaving traces of their language in English. In Northern France, they abandonned their own Germanic tongue, began to speak French and became the Normans. These French-speaking Normans then made the biggest invasion of the British Isles since the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and left a huge imprint on the English language, such that more than 50% of English vocabulary is from french origin. The Normans left in their wake, a language not quite Latinate, but not quite Germanic.

Greek was again reduced to a small area but again had a massive impact in the renaissance, new words being coined from Greek roots in most of the languages of Europe. Latin also enjoyed a revival.

The Turkic and Hungarian languages began to push out the surrounding Indo-European languages and formed their own nations.


During colonialism, the Indo-European languages spread around the world, becoming the official languages of most of the world. (Orange: countries with a majority of speakers of IE languages. Yellow: countries with an IE minority language with official status.)


I hope you found that interesting… I welcome any questions about specific IE or non-IE languages, about specific periods in Indo-European history or about the history of English itself.


These are the answers to the French-English “cognate quiz”…

school, study, squrirrel, scale, scarf. scard, screen, skim, Scotland…… (the general rule is “é” is represented as “s” in English)forest, inquest, beast, feast, haste, master, plaster, pasty, rasp, conquest, oyster, coast, hostel, roast…… (the general rule is an “s” is placed after the vowel where there is the diacritic ^ )wardrobe, William, waranty, warrior, waffle, wicket, wasp…… (the general rule here is “g” or “gu” is represented by “w” in English)

(Please note that these rules are only specific to these cognates, so don’t thin that you can decipher the whole language just by looking at phonological and orthographical changes in cognates).

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