Friday May 20, 2011
Language and places
By DR LIM CHIN LAM
A brief look at cognates and derivatives in the context of etymology and place-names.
AN interesting e-note, penned about two years ago, apparently got misplaced in MOE’s e-mail inbox. Verbatim it read: “Recent articles in your excellent column Mind Our English on the subject of suffixes and word etymology brought to mind an article on etymology I read in one of the local newspapers very many years ago. One of the topics discussed in that article was on the origin of the suffix bury as found in the names of the English townships Canterbury, Salisbury, Tilbury, etc. It appears that the suffix buri as found in the names of the Thai townships Kanchanaburi, Saraburi, Lopburi, etc is etymologically linked to the English bury and that both suffixes carry the same meaning. Improbable as this may seem it is, nevertheless, true. How did this happen? – Noel”
Recently Melissa Kwan followed up on the matter with the following note to MOE: “... It’s now more than two years since my uncle first made the enquiry. Dr Lim Chin Lam is a walking encyclopedia of the English language and my uncle suggests that you please forward the question to him.”
Dear Melissa, thank you for the compliment, but I am afraid that “a walking encyclopedia of the English language” is a mantle that will weigh too heavily on my shoulders. A more appropriate appellation would be “a dabbler in the English language.” Anyway, your uncle’s above query set me thinking of cognates, which then prompted me to prepare this article.
For a start, some definitions are in order. The adjective cognate comes from Latin cum, co- “together with” + gnatus, variant of natus “to be born”; and it pertains to words in two or more languages having rather similar spellings (or sounds) and meanings – and also commonly belonging to the same part of speech – but having a common origin.
The noun cognate is one of a set of words from different languages which bear some resemblance to one another in respect of spelling (or sound) and meaning. Consider, for example, the following words: mother (Modern English), moder (Middle English), modor (Old English), Mutte (German), moeder (Dutch), mothir (Old Norse, Icelandic), mathair (Irish, Gaelic), meter (Greek), madre (Italian, Spanish), mère (French), mater (Latin), and matr (Sanskrit) – they are cognates, all deemed to have descended from the same earlier (but usually never identified) form.
As further examples, father (Modern English), Vater (German), and pater (Latin) are cognates; and Haus in German is cognate with house in English.
Cognates within a language
Cognates may also refer to a group of words within the same language which have a common root or origin. For example, freight and fraught are cognates. They are not derived one from the other but both stem from the same old Dutch root vracht – freight from vrecht, a variant of vracht “ship’s cargo”; and fraught from vrachten “to load with cargo”. Another example is the pair savant and savvy. Again they may seem to have been derived one from the other, but they are not – savant having come from the old French present participle of savoir “to know”, and savvy from Spanish sabe, saber “to know”, but both having their ultimate origin in the Latin word sapere “to be wise”.
Cognates vs derivatives
A distinction may be made between cognates and derivatives. Unlike the examples of cognates elaborated above, the following set of words – sense, sensor, sensate/insensate, sensation, sensational, senseless, sensible, sensibility, sensitise, sensitive/insensitive, sensitiveness, sensitivity, sensory, nonsense, and commonsense – are derivatives, being recognisable derivations or extensions from one of them, in this instance the word sense, from Latin sensus “faculty of feeling, thought, meaning”. [Note that the word sentient is derived from the related Latin word sentire “to feel”.]
Derivatives are formed in various ways. Briefly, they arise from: (1) the addition of one or more suffixes to a word, e.g. sense/sens^ate, sense/sensit^ive; (2) the addition of a prefix to an existing word, e.g. income, ongoing, post-war, pre-nuptial; (3) the addition of both prefix(es) and suffix(es) to root words, word stems, and combining forms, e.g. de^mot^ion, con^ de^scens^ion, in^sensit^iv^ity, un^demo^crat^ic.
Suffixes for place-names
Let us now return to the list of townships given by reader Noel. To that list I may add Middlesborough, Peterborough and Scarborough, whose suffix -borough bears a strong resemblance, in sound if not in spelling, to the -bury of Canterbury, Salisbury and Tilbury. I would even venture to say that the -burgh (pronounced with two syllables) of Edinburgh in Scotland, the -burg of Petersburg and Orenburg in Russia, and the -burg of Aschaffenburg, Brandenburg, and Oldenburg in Germany are cognate with -bury and -borough. I would further add that -berg, as in Wittenberg and Nürmberg of Germany, is a variant of -burg. [I am, nevertheless, mindful that the -berg in iceberg is not related to the above, the word being of Dutch origin, thus: ijs “ice” + berg “hill”.]
It is also easy to relate the -buri of Kanchanburi, Lopburi, and Saraburi to the -bury/ -borough/-burgh of the aforementioned British townships.
I speculate that there is still another suffix that is cognate with -bury/-borough/-burgh, and -buri, viz. the -pur common in the names of townships such as Bahawalpur, Jodhpur, and Kanpur in the Indian sub-continent. What is more, there is no denying that -pore of Nagpore (also spelt as Nagpur) and Singapore, -pura of Singapura (also known as Singapore), and -puram of Kanchipuram are variants of -pur.
So now we have a likely set of cognate suffixes, with -bury (and its variants -borough, -burgh, -burg, and -berg), -buri, and -pur (and its variants -pore,-pura, and -puram). There is one noteworthy point: that of all the suffixes and their variants, only three also exist as stand-alone words in the English language, viz. borough (in England), burgh (in Scotland), and burg in Germany, which mean – what else? – “a township” or suchlike place.
It is easy enough to explain, from relatively recent history, the existence of townships like Sudbury in Canada, Tewksbury and Petersburg in the United States, St Petersburg (now Leningrad) in the dismantled USSR, and Singapore in the Malay Peninsula. Now, hopefully, some reader or readers will delve into the very distant past to explain how the cognate suffixes for township and the like came about in such far-flung places as Britain, Germany, Russia, South Asia, and South-East Asia.