Thursday, 6 December 2012

A horse of a different colour

Today's title was provided by 'amigos4', a long-term participant in the UsingEnglish forums. We were discussing hair colour, and the reference set me off on another reverie about where words come from (which I didn't indulge there, for fear of 'scaring the horses').

Horses? In David Crystal's The Stories of English he discusses (on p.  58) the word 'blank'.
In Old High German there is a form blanc, which means 'white, shining'. In Old English, blanca turns up meaning a horse, presumably white or grey in colour. In Beowulf (l. 856) we read of beornas on blancum  'warriors on steeds'. It is easy to deduce what happened. Roman soldiers or merchants in Europe encountered the word used by the Germanic peoples and borrowed it.
Those Roman soldiers or merchants spoke Vulgar Latin, and so many other languages descended  from Latin have similar words. ('Romance languages' is the accepted term, which I have been hesitant about using since an encounter I had with a young lady's father - whom I proudly told I was studying Romance Philology. He was not impressed: 'Romantic philosophy won't put bread on the table.') Anyway, apart from French blanc, there is  Catalan blanc, Italian bianco, Portuguese branco, Spanish blanco ...

But if blanc had Germanic origins, and was indirectly borrowed into French in a reference to horses, the story does not stop there. French returned the favour, sending the word to English in a rather different guise.

In English, there are several differences between /b/ and /p/ (which are articulated in the same place - using both lips [bilabially, to use the $10 word].) The most obvious one is voicing, the feature that distinguishes g from k, z from s, and so on). But there is another feature in our pronunciation of /b/. The onset is preceded by a little puff of air, confusingly known as 'aspiration'. The /p/ and /b/ in French don't; it's little things like this that make it difficult for us to speak French with a convincing accent - we often wrongly assume that their b is the same as our b.
To learn to speak a foreign language, we must regress to our infancy and learn to make speech noises the way a baby does. Even infancy is a bit late; there is evidence that growing familiarity with speech sound starts in the womb. Here is just one such study).
(The following explanation comes from a half-remembered 1972 lecture - given, perhaps by John Trim, perhaps by Joe Cremona [see others of my posts, the first one being this].) First World War Tommies, hearing the word blanc (used to refer to a drink of wine - which, in that part of France, was typically white), heard no aspiration after the b and heard p. When they returned home it was just 'wine', which - in 'San Ferry Ann' pronunciation - was 'plonk'. They showed little respect for its precise colour meaning, in a way strangely reminiscent of those Roman soldiers' or merchants' disregard for the original equine application - the Germanic blanc referring to 'a white or grey horse'.

The history of languages is full of such tangles, where etymological paths criss-cross, with echos and pre-echoes of common themes.

Ho hum. So many words, so little time...


PS * To quote from an article based on that study:
"The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation," said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany.
 From the Science Daily article mentioned in my main text.

Update: 2018.04.06.12:30 – Deleted old footer. I've left the original "-"s in my text, where there should have been "–"s (as in the previous line), out on unaccountable feeling of nostalgia for my former, pre-&ndash; blogger .:-)

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