PETER TRUDGILL: A not so brief history of time

PUBLISHED: 14:33 12 September 2019 | UPDATED: 14:33 12 September 2019

The complex nature of the historical relationships between the different languages of the Germanic family can be seen further in the way that our word tide is in origin the same word as German Zeit, Dutch tijd, West Frisian tiid, and Norwegian, Swedish and Danish tid. Picture: Matthew Usher.

The complex nature of the historical relationships between the different languages of the Germanic family can be seen further in the way that our word tide is in origin the same word as German Zeit, Dutch tijd, West Frisian tiid, and Norwegian, Swedish and Danish tid. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2015

PETER TRUDGILL follows a thread through the centuries, via various connected words related to the telling of time.

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In English, when we speak about the approximately twice-a-day rising and falling of the seas along our shores, we talk of high tides and low tides. Norwegian uses similar terminology: høgvatn, 'high water', and lågvatn, 'low water', as does Afrikaans: hoogwater and laagwater.

But German has two entirely different words which can be used for these tidal phenomena: high tide is Flut, while low tide is Ebbe. These lexical items are instantly recognisable to English speakers as being related to our words flood and ebb. Flood itself is related to flow - and of course we do talk about the 'ebb and flow' of the sea, as well as of, metaphorically, human fortunes.

The complex nature of the historical relationships between the different languages of the Germanic family can be seen further in the way that our word tide is in origin the same word as German Zeit, Dutch tijd, West Frisian tiid, and Norwegian, Swedish and Danish tid.

However, in all of those languages, these words do not actually mean 'tide', but rather 'time'. This is not particularly mysterious: high and low tides occur at more or less predictable times, even if this involves somewhat complex calculations - tides are dependent on the phases of the moon, and are therefore in principle known in advance indefinitely.

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The English word time, on the other hand, clearly has the same origin as Norwegian and Danish time (pronounced as two syllables, 'teem-uh'), Swedish timme, and Faroese timi. But in these Scandinavian languages, the words do not mean 'time' but rather 'hour' - a period of 60 minutes - or in an educational context 'lesson', because traditionally lessons lasted for an hour.

If we now look more closely at our English word hour, it turns out that it has the same origin as French heure and Greek ora - 'hour, time' - but it also corresponds to German Uhr and Scandinavian ur. However, these last two words do not mean 'hour' or 'time', but 'clock'. Again, you can see how that came about - we look at clocks in order to see what time or 'hour' it is.

Following the thread along from that, English clock is related to the Norwegian word klokke, Swedish klocka, and Faroese klokka, with the corresponding German form being Glocke - but these words all mean 'bell'.

Many people will know that a glockenspiel (literally a 'bell-play') is a musical instrument, pictured, which resembles a xylophone, but with keys that are made of metal rather than wood so that it sounds like bells are being struck. Once again, we can see how this semantic change could have arisen: clocks very often had bells which sounded to mark the hour.

English clock was actually originally borrowed either from Dutch klok - 'clock, bell' - or from French cloche, 'bell'. We have also borrowed cloche more directly into modern English in the sense of, originally, a kind of bell-shaped glass jar used for rearing young plants and, more recently, any rigid, translucent cover that protects plants from the cold. We also use the term cloche hat to refer to a woman's hat that is close-fitting and shaped like a bell.

The modern English word bell itself comes down to us from Old English belle, which was related to Medieval Dutch and Low German belle, with the same meaning. But no related word can be found in German; and Scandinavian forms such as Norwegian bjelle, Danish bjælde, and Icelandic bjalla seem to have been borrowed from an older form of English. The origin of bell may well lie in the Old English verb bellan, 'to roar, make a loud vocal noise', which would provide a link to bellow: German bellen does mean 'to bark', as of a dog.

It is a very long way, in terms of meaning, from 'ebbing and flowing' to 'barking', but these are the sorts of lengthy journeys that etymological research into words with related meanings can take us on.

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