June 28, 2011

Words of the Month - Devil at the Ballet

        What does a devil have in common with ballet?  Allow me to explain…
        As you probably know, languages such as French, Italian and Spanish are all descended from a single parent language: Latin.  English (though it borrows vocabulary from everywhere) shares a parent language with German, Dutch, and Yiddish, among others.  But what about Latin and the Germanic parent language?  Well, they're both descended from an even older parent language, a grandparent language, as it were.  In fact, almost all the languages of Europe, plus the Balto-Slavic languages and many languages of southern Asia, can all be traced back to a single great-great-great-grandparent language, which linguists call Proto-Indo-European.  This language was spoken before 3000 BCE and never written, so everything about it has to be deduced by comparisons of related words in all its descendent languages.  (In a nice fantasy connection, one of the philologists whose work helped scholars figure out a lot of these connections was Jakob Grimm, of fairy tale fame.)
        I offer this introduction because today's Words of the Month are some of our English words that all ultimately derive from a single Proto-Indo-European root.  The root is written GWELh-1, the notation linguists use to get down all the information they've deduced about the original word, without making a claim that this was the actual word itself as spoken by people five thousand years ago.  What the word meant was "to throw."  Out of Proto-Indo-European developed Greek, and today's Words developed into English from a few different ancient Greek words that had all derived from the Proto-Indo-European GWELh-1 word.  The first of these Greek words is ballein, meaning to throw, which has given us
     problem - something that is thrown before us (You can recognize the pro- prefix and the b-l of the Greek root)
     symbol - something that throws together an object and a meaning (sym + bol)

        The same Proto-Indo-European root also developed in another direction in Greek: diabolos meant "to slander," literally to utterly throw across someone's character.  (dia + bol)  And from that English got
     diabolic and thence devil - from a [mis]translation of the Hebrew Bible's "Satan" as "the slanderer."

        Yet another ancient Greek word that traces its origins to the same Proto-Indo-European root is ballízein, to dance - presumably to throw your body about.  And that gives us
     ball - at which Cinderella danced until midnight
     ballet - (by way of French and Italian) in which the story of, say, "Sleeping Beauty" is told through dance
     ballad - (by way of Portuguese) which was originally a dancing song

        So there you have it.  Not only are "devil" and "ballet" linguistic cousins, but so are the other Words of the Month, unrelated as they sound.  Pretty cool, eh!

[Picture: Witches and devils dancing in a circle, woodcut by Romeyn de Hooghe(?), 1720.  I wish I could give more information about this, but I can't track down any details.  I found the image here.]

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