Dienstag, 11. September 2012


Recently, I stumbled upon the word heiligenschein. At first, I didn't know what to make of it, but through Wikipedia I learned that a heiligenschein is
"an optical phenomenon which creates a bright spot around the shadow of the viewer's head. It is created when the surface on which the shadow falls has special optical characteristics. Dewy grass is known to exhibit these characteristics, and creates a Heiligenschein. Nearly spherical dew droplets act as lenses to focus the light on the surface beneath them. Some of this light 'backscatters' in the direction of the sunlight as it passes back through the dew droplet. This makes the antisolar point appear the brightest.“
This is an interesting topic, btw! See also these links with nice sample photos of heiligenschein: http://www.atoptics.co.uk/droplets/heilig.htm (link from 7.08.12).

As a German word, heiligenschein means "halo" or "glory", so both the English and the German language have their native word for that notion and, of course, there is no need for English speakers to use the German word, and vice versa, in that sense.

So why did English speakers take to using the word heiligenschein in their language?
A heiligenschein is a particular optical phenomenon that looks similar to a halo.
And because of that similarity someone introduced the German heiligenschein as a metaphorical expression for that newly discovered phenomenon. 
Maybe a German speaking scientist was involved in the coinage, that would explain the choice of the source language (but I do have the impression that in the realm of physics it is not rare that German words are used for denoting particular phenomena).
I won't leave out another interesting feature of heiligenschein: In German, it is a compound word, consisting of the components Heiligen and Schein, and although the word has acquired its own special lexical meaning, the meanings of the components are still transparent: a Heiliger is a saint, and Schein means glow or shine. 
Native speakers of the recipient language English can't make out those constituents any more, so in English, the word has to be regarded as a simplex.

To summarize the previous description:
The coining and usage of the English word heiligenschein exhibits some typical features of loanwords:
Words of one language enter another language conveying new content, new notions, be it scientifc or technological, philosophical or religious vocabulary (there can be other reasons, but that's for another post).
The words often do not retain their original spectrum of meaning, but take on a more specialized meaning in the recipient language. 
If the loanword is a compound in the donor language, it is probable that the speakers of the recipient language don't understand its constituents any more and therefore treat the word as a simplex. 

Btw, in the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee, heiligenschein was the word which eliminated a contestant who finished fourth for the second consecutive year. As this competition whas televised live in a primetime broadcast, the event involving heiligenschein got widely known and is credited with increasing the prominence of the spelling bee in American culture.

Sonntag, 19. Februar 2012


dost  'friend' was one of the first few Hindi words I encountered, and like so many words in Hindi, it has been borrowed from Persian (in Modern Persian it has become dust, as far as I know).
I don't know in how many contemporary languages it has become a loanword as well, but at least I often read it in Turkish internet posts.
Its meaning alone makes me love the word – but for a person interested in historical linguistics, there is a lot more to it – a long history dating back to, roughly estimated, 3,000 BCE, and a rich variety of descendants of the original Proto-Indo-European word in various Indo-European languages.
But how can we know that word and what it meant?

First, we can go back to the Old Persian language, to the inscriptions of King Dareios. With the word dauštar   'friend', the predecessor of dost, Dareios seems to have spoken of his true allies, as opposed to the „liars“, those who betrayed him.
In the most ancient layer of the Sanskrit language, called Vedic, we have a word that is phonetically corresponding to dauštar : joṣṭár 'loving'. As the two meanings can also easily be related to each other, we can be sure there must have been a word that is the common predecessor of both.
Most likely, that predecessor wasn't a noun, but a cognate verb. As we can tell from the suffix -tar-, which is common to both nouns, these words are agent nouns derived from a verbal root.
That verbal root in fact exists; it is to be found in Old Persian as well as in Old Avestan (the language of Zoroaster), and also in Vedic Sanskrit:
The Old Persian verb is dauš-, the Old Avestan cognate being zauš-, and the Sanskrit word is juṣ-.
The three verbs share roughly the same meaning: ENJOY.
Looking closer into the Sanskrit texts, it becomes clear that 'enjoy' isn't just meant to be a passive emotional state elicited by a pleasurable sensation, but a feeling evoked by something or someone that has been CHOSEN.
By looking back even further in time (plus by comparing cognates from even more Indo-European languages), at last we find the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) verb *ğeus- 'to taste', 'to relish'.

After that most ancient PIE stage (which we can only deduce, of course), the Indo-Iranian branch wasn't the only one in which that verb was preserved in several ways.

In our Germanic languages, Old English ceosan 'choose', 'taste', 'try' has originated from Proto-Germanic *keusanan (cf. Dutch kiezen, Old High German kiosan, German kiesen, Old Nordic kjosa , and the like in other Germanic languages), which of course has descended from the same PIE base *ğeus-, and has eventually become our choose (somehow choice is also related to it, btw).

The Romance languages have preserved that ancient Indo-European verb as well. Latin gustare 'taste', 'take a little of' is cognate to the verbs discussed above and a descendant of *ğeus- ., with several modern verbs (and nouns) originating from it, e.g. Spanish gustar.
It is obvious that the semantic development of the root takes various directions in the respective language families, may it be 'choose' or 'try' in the Germanic languages, and often 'taste' in Romance.
So English choose, Persian/Hindi/Turkish dost  and Spanish gustar  (plus many more words in other languages) all originate from a common ancestor, the PIE word *ğeus- 'taste', 'relish'.
Because it fits with this post in a way, at last a link to a wonderful song: Manu Chao, Me gustas tú