The secret underground passages between languages

In his talks, a friend and teacher sometimes expressed amused astonishment that the Russian word for bread is khleb. When visiting Moscow he remembered seeing this word on the side of delivery lorries and its odd sound tickled his sense of humour.

He wasn’t making fun of Russian: he was making a wider point about  the variety of arbitrary names we hang round the neck of experiences and processes to turn them into ‘things’ so that we can handle them with our minds.

Browsing through a Russian etymological dictionary one day, I came across the entry for khleb, first recorded in Russian in the eleventh century and coming from Gothic. In the 3rd and 4th centuries the Goths from Southern Sweden invaded the land between the Vistula and the Dnieper, bringing Western European words with them in their language. In this case, Russian khleb derives from Gothic hlaifs.

So far so good. But the dictionary went on to point out that hlaifs is related to the Old English word hlaf, from which we get the modern English word loaf.

Bizarrely, through the Old English hlaefdige which means kneader of bread, hlaf is also linked with another modern English word, lady. Presumably this was because ladies were the breadmakers of the home.

Ultimately, all these words derive from the Indo European word khloibo (bread baked in pans). Indo European is the hypothesised language of a nomadic, early agrarian society that lived more than 5,000 years ago in southern Russia. It’s from this group and their related dialects that many European and Asian languages derive.

So khleb, bread (loaf) and lady, although on the surface of it so very far apart, are actually linked through these secret underground passages of language and ultimately to a single source.

John, I wish I had been able to share this one with you!

In memory of John Crook


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