The Linguist

The Linguist 52,2

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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FEATURES What's in a word? Etymological dictionaries are bedside reading for Roger Cooper, but how do they help language learners? Expats in Prague sometimes boast that the only word they know in Czech is pivo ('beer'). If they want two beers, all they do is hold up two fingers, unaware that in many cultures that's fighting talk. In practice, they probably get what they want, but without the respect that a little linguistic effort might have earned them. Klaus, a teenager with a Czech mother and a German father, once told me proudly that he didn't know a single word of Czech. Knowing he was an apprentice in a Frankfurt garage, I replied: 'Yes, you do: Škoda.' To which he replied, 'Das ist nicht fair. Škoda ist ein Name, nicht ein Wort.' I explained that it also means 'what a pity' or Schade in German. You can't blame Klaus for wondering why Emil Škoda would have had regrets about his famous cars, which in the early 20th century briefly held the world's land speed record. Although most Czech surnames reflect an ancestor's trade or occupation (as do many English ones: I am presumably named after a barrel-making ancestor), some are jokey nicknames. The surname of Jaroslav Drobný, the Czech tennis star who won Wimbledon in 1954, translates as 'Titchy'. The original Mr Škoda probably got his name from regularly saying 'what a pity' – perhaps as a part broke while he was perfecting his machines. Digging deeper, we find that škoda is a cognate of Schade, both coming from Old High German scado, which in turn is related to the English ascetic, derived from the Greek askētikos 20 The Linguist APRIL/MAY ('self-disciplined', hence a 'monk/hermit'). Although the meaning has developed considerably, the Greek consonants s k t, with minor sound changes, are still there in the English, German and Czech derivatives. A good reply to the beer-drinking expat in the Czech Republic would be that he knows thousands of Czech words. These include all the common scientific and cultural words that, in English, end in '-ology', meaning 'the study of', and their Czech cousins (eg, geologie, psychologie, and, yes, etymologie). There is a website that lists 4,304 English words with this ending, of which at least 500 are relatively well-known, and even the more obscure ones are understood all over the world by educated people and specialists in related fields. The same applies to many other words derived from classical languages. These five consecutive entries in a pocket English-Czech dictionary, for example, need no English translation: legenda, legendární, legionář, legislativa, legitimita. The pronunciation may change, but the spelling is usually almost identical. Most words in the terminology spawned by the internet are also English, and are understood everywhere in the world. A knowledge of other languages will help students of all the less common European languages. The Czech word brýle ('glasses') would easily be understood in Frankfurt – even by Klaus – as it is borrowed from the German Brille. This, in turn, comes from the mineral beryl, which early eyeglasses were made of. Beryl is also the source of English 'brilliant', not to mention Brylcreem and, via the Spanish, the brillo pad. 'Elementary, my dear Watson', or as E M Forster taught us: 'Only connect'. When starting a new language, one of the first books I buy is an etymological dictionary. Most decent English dictionaries include at least a brief note on the source of each word, often just its immediate parent, if French or Latin. Such notes are less common in foreign dictionaries and never found in bilingual ones. Larousse publishes a Spanish dictionary for advanced learners with etymologies for some entries, but not all. There are probably French and German high-school dictionaries with such notes, but it is worth buying a dedicated etymological dictionary if you are serious about your new language. Czech is well served by Jiři Rejzek's Etymologicky Slovník, which gives cognates in related languages. Such dictionaries are always monolingual and may seem daunting to the new learner. Yet they follow a standard pattern, so once you've mastered the abbreviations it is a useful way of building up vocabulary in the target language. I find it easier to remember that the Czech for a monkey is opice, for example, when I know that -ice is a diminutive suffix and op is a cognate of English 'ape'. Sourcing etymological dictionaries for some languages is not easy. Even living near Barcelona, I found it difficult to obtain one for Catalan or Spanish. An internet search led to a nine-volume Spanish opus by Coromines at €190 per volume! Its 10-volume Catalan equivalent costs 'only' US$750. The Real Academia dictionary does give word origins but they are rather inadequate, and it weighs several kilograms, so you can't just reach for it.

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