Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Broken Linseed, breakfast and etymology

I enjoy a bit of broken linseed on my muesli of a morning.

This morning I idly looked over the packet of linseed and thanks to the handy way packaging (and road signs) in Brussels often has instant translations into French and Dutch I was able to see that in Dutch it's gebroken lijnzaad.

No big secrets here I think. In fact here we can see the proof that English is a Germanic language and the etymology of both backs this up (Old English: līn sǣd. Interestingly it seems that this time, it's the Dutch which has deviated more from the old root word as PIE for flax is also līn).

But that's not what caught my eye. What caught my eye was the absence of 'ge-' in the English version. I knew that English, as a Germanic language, also used 'ge-' as a prefix to indicate a completed action but why doesn't it anymore? After all, it has a PIE root in 'ga-'.

It seems laziness may have played a part....

On further reading I find that the 'ge-' prefix in English was pronounced 'y-'. Sounds weird but you hear a difference between German with a hard 'ge-' sound, and in Dutch a softer 'ge-' prefix and further in the Dutch spoken in Flanders, it's even softer. Why not shift it softer still in Old English?

And we can imagine why this very soft 'y-' sound easily faded out. Try it! It's a pain to say... ymarried, yfallen, yknow....! So, ever the pragmatist, the English language simply let this appendage shrivel up and drop off.

But not altogether. It remains alive in words such as handiwork (y- seems to have [eventuallly] been pronounced -i-) (Handiwork comes from hand + gewoerc.

And all that from ybroken linseed!

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