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Usually, it's easy to tell whether a word has Latin or German ancestry. Water ("wasser") clearly comes from German, whereas aquatic ("aqua") clearly comes from Latin.

But what's harder for me to tell, at first glance, is the ancestry of the words "mother" and "father". The Latin equivalent is "mater" and "pater", and the German equivalent is "Vater" and "Mutter".

Both the Latin and German equivalents are extremely similar to the English as well as to each other. This leads me to ask a couple questions.

  1. Why are the Latin and German words for "mother" and "father" so similar?
  2. Is the ancestry of "mother" and "father" Latin or German?
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    Water doesn't actually come from German; water and Wasser are cognates, meaning they both come from the same parent word, but neither is derived from the other. There are relatively few German-origin words in English, and they're mostly obvious recent loanwords (e.g. schadenfreude). – TKR May 2 '16 at 17:10
  • @TKR I'm a little confused then. I thought that Saxon tribes brought the Germanic language to modern-day England. This would lead me to think that the word Wasser got morphed into water over time. In which case, I would feel comfortable saying that water comes from Wasser. – ktm5124 May 2 '16 at 18:53
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    Don't be misled by the term "Germanic" into thinking that this language (the ancestor of English, German, Dutch, Swedish, etc.) was any closer to modern German than to modern English. In this particular case, the form water is actually closer to the Proto-Germanic word than the form Wasser, since the change of t to ss is specific to German. – TKR May 2 '16 at 19:27
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    Wouldn't this question be better asked on Linguistics Stack Exchange or perhaps English Language & Usage? – TRiG May 3 '16 at 3:35
  • @TRiG It's probably better suited for those sites, particularly Linguistics, but to me it's sufficiently related to Latin to be on-topic here as well. – Nathaniel is protesting May 3 '16 at 13:40
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I suspect somebody else will be able to give you a much more thorough answer, but the gist is that, though Latin and German are different branches of the language tree, they're still related.

The easiest way to think of it is that Latin and German are related from the same ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, which had the words * meH₂tér- and * pH₂tér-. (The asterisks mean that we have no evidence of the existence of those words, but working backwards from the languages we do have evidence of, we can say with some confidence that they probably existed.) Eventually, PIE split into several language families, one of which was Italic (and included Latin) and one of which was Germanic (and included German). The Germanic family continued to split until it gave rise to English.

The words for "father" and "mother" already existed in PIE, so they just sort of changed shape as the language evolved. (Actually, Wasser also goes back to PIE—Latin just happens to have a different word for it. Thanks to @TKR for the correction.)

Essentially, Latin is sort of an aunt of German and English, which are sisters. (Thanks again to @TKR for the correction.)

  • I had just written an answer when you posted yours. I decided to let the people choose not to discard mine although yours is more thorough. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 2 '16 at 16:13
  • Glad I could help! I KNEW that linguistics degree would come in handy one day! – Joel Derfner May 2 '16 at 16:20
  • This is mostly right, but a couple of corrections: (1) English is not German's daughter but German's sister. They're both Germanic languages, descending from Proto-Germanic which descends from PIE. (2) Wasser/water actually do go all the way back to PIE (and are cognate with Greek ὕδωρ), though Latin happens to have a different word for water. – TKR May 2 '16 at 17:09
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As far as I know, both "mother" and "father" are old Indo-European words that have been traced all the way back to PIE. Both Italic and Germanic languages took these words, and both words ended up in Latin, English and German. So:

  1. They come from the same PIE word.
  2. Neither. It comes from PIE through Proto-Germanic, not passing through German or Latin. The German and Latin words are its cousins, not parents.
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    It's neat that the words "mother" and "father" are so ancient, and that so many people throughout history have referred to their parents in a similar way. – ktm5124 May 2 '16 at 16:14
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    @ktm5124, it is indeed neat, but I wonder if it's coincidental. It might be that important words like these are less likely to be replaced than some other ones. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 2 '16 at 16:18
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    @JoonasIlmavirta: one major theory is that it’s not coincidental at all, but that it’s because these words are replaced more often than most others! That is: any time they drift too far away from simple forms based on the first syllables that infants can speak, they get replaced by new versions formed form these syllables. Here’s a nice essay on it: Trask, Where do *mama/papa words come from?*. I’m not a linguist, but I believe this represents the mainstream consensus. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine May 2 '16 at 16:35
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine, that is very interesting, thanks! I only hope I could give your comment more than just an upvote. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 2 '16 at 17:00
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First time poster here. I was reading about PIE a couple of days ago, and found this nice image (via http://mentalfloss.com/article/68281/evolution-two-indo-european-language-family):

The evolution of 'two' in PIE

Which explains how, from my part of this world, we got the word 'dua' as the number two.

I do not have the corresponding image for "mother" or "father", but the idea is the same: "two" does not come from the Latin duo or German zwei, but they all come from the same word in PIE.

  • Welcome! This is an interesting graphic, but it doesn't really answer the question asked. Stack Exchange is a bit more structured than a typical forum, to help ensure that questions and answers are directly related, for the benefit of future readers. I hope you'll stick around, review how to answer a question, and post again in the future! – Nathaniel is protesting May 3 '16 at 2:13
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    Welcome! I took the liberty to edit your answer a little. Feel free to re-edit or undo my edits if they feel wrong. Answers here are supposed to answer the question, so I tried to relate your answer more closely to the question itself. The image is interesting and illuminates a phenomenon that is the key to this question, so don't want to remove it. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 3 '16 at 7:03
  • That graph gives an idea of how it works, but it's unfortunately overly simplified. Polish and Czech, for example, come from a common source after Proto-Slavic, and there are quite a few steps in between each arrow as they appear. But it's, overall, the gist of the idea. – C. M. Weimer Jun 10 '17 at 15:56

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