v50: vuxen

You’ll recall that Swedish and English are both Germanic languages. The common ancestor to Swedish and English is called Proto-Germanic, and was spoken by Germanic tribes living around 500 BCE (the end of the Nordic Bronze Age) in what is now Denmark, southern Sweden, and northern Germany. These tribes included the Angles, who gave their name to England and English.

Swedish and English have many similar words, and this can be explained either by a common ancestry, or by more recent borrowings (restaurang = restaurant was borrowed from French by both Swedish and English). Similarity among “basic vocabulary” such as kinship terms, numbers, body parts, and pronouns is more likely explained by a common ancestry. So here are some interesting bits of etymology I discovered when looking at words for people.

Child in Swedish is barn, related to bära, to carry or bear. In English, the sense of bear meaning give birth (yes, birth is related also, with the -th suffix apparently meaning process) is perhaps not so common, but it lives on in the past participle, born.

Incidentally, spädbarn = infant, with späd meaning tender, tiny, delicate. The latter is related to spä = to dilute, and probably also to spad = liquid. So that’s the connection between a young child and a glass of water!

The one common Swedish word I just couldn’t see an English cognate for was vuxen = adult. But there is one – any ideas? There are not even any other (apart from the obvious) vux- words in Swedish; instead, related words begin with väx-, and have meanings to do with growth and change: växa = to grow; växel = both gear (on a bicycle), small change, points (on a railway), and switchboard; växelkurs = exchange rate; växla = to change; växt (noun) = both growth and plant; and växthus = greenhouse. And the related English word? Remembering that the v/w distinction is only a recent one in Swedish, the word is wax, to increase, used for example in relation to phases of the moon. And also related, believe it or not, is waist, I guess because it’s the part of the body that grows (in adults, no less).

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Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 17:04  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Aha, I’m sort of proud of making this connection myself when I came across the words vuxen and växa. I knew my English vocabulary words would come in handy someday. 😛

    It’s good to see another post from you. I feel like I haven’t seen one in a while.

  2. Interesting. So växa and wax (as in “wax and wane”) both stem from the Greek aexo and Latin auxilium. They, in turn, share a common Indo-European root auegs, which gives us the English augment (from Latin augere, “to increase”).

    I didn’t know that waist was also related.

    Do post more, please.

  3. I found your article very interesting even though my head was spinning at the end. I tried to learn Swedish many years ago. I was really amazed at the numerous English – Swedish cognates. There also seems to be some roots in other languages as well as latin, such as Greek. for example numbers in Swedish. I gave up learning because I found the pronunciation too difficult. Also, everyone said why bother, we all speak English.


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