4 very old words for very new things

Camera? Internet? Those words are 6,000 years old.

You may have heard about a new study examining "ultraconserved" words, which haven't changed much in form or sense for thousands and thousands of years. (Think about words like man, hand, mother, and spit.) There has also been some good criticism of the methodology of the study.

Many people seem to think it's a new discovery that many of the words we speak can be traced to a common language from thousands of years ago. But it's actually been known for a very long time that every language in the Indo-European family — from Portuguese to Norwegian to Croatian to Hindi — traces back to a single language, which we call Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short. Then things started diverging into our modern languages about 5,700 years ago. The authors of the new study are simply trying to push even farther back into the past.

That's not to say the words haven't changed a lot. They have. Still, we don't really need new words for new things. We just MacGyver some existing bits of language to fit our new needs. Take, for example, your iPhone or Android phone, which you might even be reading this with. It's a phone that is also a camera, computer, and internet-connected device. All four of those things — phone, camera, computer, internet — are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty new. But the words we use for them are all made with linguistic bits older than the pyramids.

Telephone: distance speaking

Phone is short for telephone, a word made from two ancient Greek roots: téle (τῆλε) and phoné (ϕωνή). Téle meant "afar" and phoné meant "sound". Both of these parts came, changed over time, from PIE roots. Telé is thought to have come from PIE *kwel (the * means it's reconstructed), which meant "end" or "distance"; it also shows up in words as diverse as cycle, wheel, cultivate, and colonist. Phoné is thought to have come from PIE *bha, "speak," which shows up — mutated by time — in words including fame, fable, fascinate, fate, and bann.

Camera: an arch

Our modern word camera is short for camera obscura, Latin for "dark chamber" (because the first cameras were dark chambers). Camera means "room" or "chamber" and is related to the word chamber. In Latin, and in the Greek it came from, it particularly meant a vaulted room — one with arches. That's how they came to be using a word that came from the PIE for "arch," *kam. That root referred also to bends more generally, and may be the same root used in camp and jamb.

Computer: be awake with

A computer is something that computes — we tend to forget that, but math is the basis for all this amazing electronic stuff you're using. But where does compute come from? It's from Latin computare, meaning "reckon" or "calculate"; that's made of com "with" and putare "think." The com comes from PIE *kom "beside, near, by, with," which is also the source of the Greek-derived cata "down" root you see in catalog and catastrophe. The putare also meant "prune, cut off branches" and seems to have come from PIE *bheudh "be awake, be aware," which is also seen in words such as Buddha and bid.

Internet: a knot between

Internet is from inter plus a shortened network. We can leave the work out of this because net is a word of its own. Inter is direct from Latin, meaning "between, among"; the PIE form of that is *enter, which also developed into under and internal and the enter in gastroenteritis. Net, on the other hand, is from an old Germanic word that in turn traces back to PIE *ned "twist, knot" (since a net is made of ropes knotted together). The PIE root has also evolved to node, nexus, and the second half of connect.

These new things have names that are just reused old words modified from even older words. It's almost like building an office tower with weathered stone blocks from an ancient temple. That latest bit of technology you're holding, which ties together your friends, lets you talk at a distance, keeps you up at night, and is like an arch supporting — or sheltering — your life, is named with words from 6,000 years ago for those very things.

On the other hand, if you want to tweet about this, you may be relieved to know that the word tweet was invented just 170 years ago in imitation of the sound of a bird.


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