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How brothers become strangers, and vice versa
Two remarkable etymological maps show twin forces at work throughout human history.
- These two maps capture the centrifugal and centripetal forces at work throughout human history.
- See how the Proto-Indo-European word for 'brother' spreads and changes, in both sound and meaning.
- And how the Proto-Germanic word for 'stranger' now is a familiar fixture of European toponymy.
Name that animal (in Proto-Indo-European)
What is the difference between a brother and a stranger? Distance and time. As both grow, what is familiar becomes less so. As they decrease, what is strange becomes familiar.
These two maps neatly capture those two driving forces of human history – centrifugal and centripetal – via the rather unexpected medium of etymology. The first one goes back all the way to Proto-Indo-European, and the video above gives a hint of what that may well have sounded like.
Brothers, friars, buddies
Map showing the spread over time and place of the Proto-Indo-European word for 'brother'.
Image by u/Virble, found here. Reproduced with kind permission.
The first one shows the spread of the word Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word for 'brother' across an area stretching from Iceland to Bangladesh. Although it may no longer seem obvious to speakers of Icelandic and Bengali, the word they use to refer to their mother's (other) son derives from the same source.
We have no direct record of PIE. It has been reconstructed entirely from the similarities between the languages of the Indo-European family, based on theories of how they have changed over time.
The most common hypothesis is that PIE was spoken from 4500 to 2500 BC on the Pontic-Caspian steppes, the grasslands stretching from Romania across Ukraine into southern Russia. Its speakers then migrated east and west, so PIE eventually fragmented into a family of languages spoken across Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.
Those languages may be mutually unintelligible now, but the similarities between certain basic words still points to a common origin. And that's how we've been able to reconstruct bʰréh₂tēr, PIE for 'brother'.
Via Proto-Balto-Slavic, this turns into brat (in Russian and all other Slavic languages). Proto-Germanic is the intermediate to modern German Bruder, Scandinavian bror, Dutch broer, and English brother. Via Proto-Italic, we get Latin frater, and that gives similar-sounding words in French (frère), Italian (fratello), and Romanian (frate).
Things get interesting in Iberia. The local languages use another word entirely to describe brotherly kinship: it's hermano (in Spanish) or irmão (in Portuguese). This derives from the second word of the Latin phrase frater germanus, which means 'brother of the same blood' (literally: 'of the same germ'). The phrase was used to distinguish between 'blood brothers' and brothers by adoption, a common occurrence in Roman times.
Frater does have a descendant in the Iberian languages, but fraile (Spanish) and frade (Portuguese) only mean 'brother' in the ecclesiastical sense – similar to the English term friar. The change in meaning is indicated by the dotted line across the Pyrenees. Another dotted line on the Greek border denotes another shift in meaning: in Proto-Hellenic, *phrātēr means 'citizen' rather than 'brother'.
On its march east, the PIE word for 'brother' transforms into Proto-Indo-Iranian, then branches off into distinct Proto-Iranian and Sanskrit strands. The Proto-Iranian (*bráHtā) radiates slightly to the west and more vigorously to the east; the modern Persian word (barâdar) makes it into Turkish as a loan word, but again, the meaning changes. In Turkish, kardeş is what you call your little brother (or little sister), while an older brother is called abi. Birader means 'brother' in a more symbolic sense, as 'buddy' or 'comrade'. In Hindi and throughout the subcontinent, bhai and slight variations are the commonest word to express the brotherly bond.
While the Icelander and Bangladeshi might have some trouble recognising the other's word for 'brother', it's remarkable that PIE's original term resonates so well in so many modern languages. As one commenter (on Reddit) said: "I am now fascinated by the idea that I can just go to a random village in the middle of Afghanistan, find the oldest man in town who has never heard or seen a foreigner, and that when I say 'brother' to him with a faint Jamaican accent he will probably understand what I mean, because the word in his native language sounds almost exactly the same."
The Proto-Germanic word for 'stranger', and its impact on the map of Europe.
Image by u/Virble, found here. Reproduced with kind permission.
In other words: brotherliness can survive great distances across time and space. The second map shows the opposite: how 'stranger-ness' can persist, even in close proximity. The Proto-Germanic word for 'stranger' is *walhaz.
Early on, it became the default term to describe the closest 'others', as in Old Norse, where Valr means 'southerner' or 'Celt'. As such, it became attached to a number of southern/Celtic regions and countries, most famously Wales but also Gaul, Cornwall and Wallonia.
As the Gallic tribes were Romanised over time, the German(ic) term came to be applied to Romance speakers specifically, as for example in Welschland, the Swiss-German term for the French-speaking part of Switzerland. The Swiss-French term is la Romandie or la Suisse romande.
Something similar happened after the Proto-Germanic term was borrowed by Proto-Slavic. Vlokh came to mean 'Roman speaker', and was applied to the people (Vlachs, a former name for Romanians) and the region (Wallachia, in present-day Romania). The term Vlachs still applies to Romance-speaking minorities in the southern Balkans. In Polish, a variant Wlochy is used to describe the country the name of which in most other languages resembles 'Italy'.
The dots represent city and town names containing the term, indicating points of contact between 'us' and 'them'. These points are particularly plentiful in Britain, and in other areas of Western Europe where the friction between invading Germanic tribes and resident Roman citizens was strongest.
But while that clash of cultures persists in place names, the inhabitants of Walcheren (in the Netherlands), Wallasey (in the UK), Wallstadt (Germany), Welschbillig (France), Walshoutem (Belgium) and all the other dots on this map have stopped thinking in terms of 'us' and 'them' a long time ago. At least in terms of the 'locals'. There's plenty of other walhaz in the world, even if they are brothers from another mother.
Maps reproduced with kind permission of Reddit user u/Virble. For more of his etymological maps, check out this overview of his Reddit contributions.
Strange Maps #1038
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.