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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are noble 18th-century norms fit for 21st-century life? Especially when, as Yuval Harari says, liberalism’s “factual statements just don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.”
1. All Americans are liberals. The Founders declared (original) liberalism the self-evident centerpiece of the American deal. Let me explain, while spotlighting three flavors of liberalism: rational, romantic, realist.
2. Liberal (from Latin for “noble”) first meant “befitting free people” ~1500, then "free from prejudice, tolerant” ~1700, favoring “freedom and democracy" ~1801, and opposing conservatism ~1832.
3. Historian Dennis Rasmussen discerns two Enlightenment liberalisms: “pragmatic” and idealistic. Relabeling these “realist” and “rationalist” underscores unresolved strains in liberalism’s logic.
4. The rationalists were “highly idealistic” logic-loving axiomatic-system builders—Locke’s natural law contracts, Kant’s universal logical duties, Bentham’s greatest good for the greatest number.
6. Realists, like Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, were “critics of reason in the… Age of Reason.” Seeing reason’s evident limits, they took a “more realistic, moderate, flexible” approach “grounded in experience and empirical observation …[not] abstract standards.” Liberal realists were quite conservative favoring “gradual, piecemeal reform.”
7. Hume called Locke’s contracts "implausibly individualistic" (imaginary “offers” you couldn’t refuse). Anthropologists, evolutionists and parents all know no alternative self-sufficient “state of nature” really existed.
8. Kant’s high-concept abstractions can fail trivial tests. For instance, you shouldn’t lie to assassins about a target’s whereabouts? Beware oddball geniuses who aspirationally project their rare rigor onto others.
9. Bentham’s “pig philosophy” confuses pleasure with happiness. And fans of one-trick-minded calculus of consequences seem easily steamrolled, e.g., infamous “trolley problems” derail with a loved-one at stake (see “relational rationality”).
10. Yuval Harari’s big-picture patterns suggest the third kind, “romantic liberalism.” The core “liberal package” turns our gaze obsessively “inwards,” enthroning feelings as “the supreme source of meaning” and authority.
12. Note art’s role as way-of-life preacher. As Wilfred Pareto said, "The most universal religion of the West… is the sex religion; the novel supplies… its doctrine.”
13. Idea-faith and cognitive-style issues abound. For instance, free-market-obsessed neoliberalism mixes rationalism and romanticism, but lacks realism. The neoclassical versus behavioral economics struggle rests on realer rationality limits (see Adam Smith was a behavioral economist, and “behavioral politics“).
14. Life-shaping ideas demand regular realistic reassessment, not blinkered (enlightened-seeming) faith. As philosopher Anna Alexandrova notes, liberal faith that “only the individual is an authority on their own well-being… flies in the face of facts.”
15. Harari agrees, "science is undermining… the liberal order." Liberalism’s “factual statements just don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.” For instance, individualism is a “WEIRD” sampling error (with art-configured ups-and-downs), presuming true inner selves risks the “fundamental attribution error,” and feelings often mislead.
16. "New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods," says Harari. Likewise sacred ideas.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
From olde English dogs, to immoral women, to weak men, to irritating women, to its prideful reclaiming, to ownership over a woman (there's a theme here), the word "b*tch" has a long and fascinating history, and it's all stored in the archives of the Merriam-Webster lexicography department.
Language is an evolving animal. That's why the world needs lexicographers, to update dictionaries so they reflect the language of the time. This paper trail leaves a fascinating historical record, one that Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper decided travel down when tasked with updating the definition of the word "b*tch". Stamper noticed there was no label in the dictionary that marked the word as a pejorative. It has meant a lot of different things since it first came into use, sometime before the 12th century, as a term for female dog. Stamper runs through the history of the people this term has applied to, its varied uses, and the muted, bureaucratic struggle that kept it from being marked as an offensive term until the 1990s.
Kory Stamper is the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.