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In etymology, two or more words in the same language are called doublets or etymological twins (or possibly triplets, etc.) when they have different phonological forms but the same etymological root. Often, but not always, the variants have entered the language through different routes. Because the relationship between words that have the same root and the same meaning is fairly obvious, the term is mostly used to characterize pairs of words that have diverged in meaning at least to some extent.
For example English pyre and fire are doublets. Modern words with similar meaning but subtle differences contribute to the richness of the English language, as exemplified by the doublets frail and fragile (both from the Latin root, fragilis): one might refer to a fragile tea cup and a frail old woman, but never frail tea cup, whilst fragile old woman adds a dimension of meaning by implying emotional infirmity rather than physical.
Another example of nearly synonymous doublets is aperture and overture (the commonality behind the meanings is "opening"), but doublets may develop divergent meanings, such as the opposite words, host and guest from the same PIE root, which occur as a doublet in Latin and then Old French hospes, before having been borrowed into English. Doublets also vary with respect to how far their forms have diverged. For example, the resemblance between levy and levee is obvious, whereas the connection between sovereign and soprano, or grammar and glamour, is harder to guess synchronically from the forms of the words alone. One of the most distant everyday doublets is tea and chai, via two long routes.
Doublets can develop in various ways, according to which route the two forms took from the origin to their current form. Complex, multi-step paths are possible, though in many cases groups of terms follow the same path. Simple paths are discussed below, with the simplest distinction being that doublets in a given language can have their root in the same language (or an ancestor), or may originate in a separate language.
Most simply, a native word can at some point split into two distinct forms, staying within a single language.
Alternatively, a word may be inherited from a parent language, and a cognate borrowed from a separate sister language. In other words, one route was direct inheritance, while the other route was inheritance followed by borrowing. In English this means one word inherited from a Germanic source, with a Latinate cognate term borrowed from Latin or a Romance language. In English this is most common with words which can be traced back to Indo-European languages, which in many cases share the same proto-Indo-European root, such as Romance beef and Germanic cow. However, in some cases the branching is more recent, dating only to proto-Germanic, not to PIE; many words of Germanic origin occur in French and other Latinate languages, and hence in some cases were both inherited by English (from proto-Germanic) and borrowed from French or another source – see List of English Latinates of Germanic origin. The forward linguistic path also reflects cultural and historical transactions; often the name of an animal comes from Germanic while the name of its cooked meat comes from Romance. Since English is unusual in that it borrowed heavily from two distinct branches of the same language family tree – Germanic and Latinate/Romance – it has a relatively high number of this latter type of etymological twin. See list of Germanic and Latinate equivalents in English for further examples and discussion.
Less commonly, a native word may be borrowed into a foreign language, then reborrowed back into the original language, existing alongside the original term. An English example is animation and anime "Japanese animation", which was reborrowed from Japanese アニメ anime.
In case of twins of foreign origin, which consist of two borrowings (of related terms), one can distinguish if the borrowing is of a term and a descendent, or of two cognate terms (siblings).
Etymological twins are often a result of chronologically separate borrowing from a source language. In the case of English, this usually means once from French during the Norman invasion, and again later, after the word had evolved separately in French. An example of this is warranty and guarantee.
Another possibility is borrowing from both a language and its daughter language. In English this is usually Latin and some other Romance language, particularly French – see Latin influence in English. The distinction between this and the previous is whether the source language has changed to a different language or not.
Less directly, a term may be borrowed both directly from a source language and indirectly via an intermediate language. In English this is most common in borrowings from Latin, and borrowings from French that are themselves from Latin; less commonly from Greek directly and through Latin.
In case of borrowing cognate terms, rather than descendents, most simply an existing doublet can be borrowed: two contemporary twin terms can be borrowed.
More remotely, cognate terms from different languages can be borrowed, such as sauce (Old French) and salsa (Spanish), both ultimately from Latin, or tea (Dutch thee) and chai (Hindi), both ultimately from Old Chinese via rather long routes. This last pair reflects a considerable history of how tea entered English via old trade routes.
Many thousands of English examples can be found, grouped according to their earliest deducible Indo-European ancestor, in Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. In some cases over a hundred English words can be traced to a single root. Some random examples in English include:
- shadow, shade and shed (all three from Old English sceadu "shadow, shade")
- stand, stay, state, status and static (native, Middle French, Latin (twice) and Ancient Greek via Latin, from the same Indo-European root)
- chief and chef (both from French at different times)
- secure and sure (from Latin, the latter via French)
- plant and clan (from Latin, the latter via Old Irish)
- right, rich, raj, rex, regalia, reign, royal and real (from Germanic, Celtic, Sanskrit, Latin (twice), French (twice) and Portuguese cognates, respectively)
- carton and cartoon, both ultimately the augmentative of Latin carta
- ward and guard (from Norman, the latter via French, both from Germanic); also warden and guardian.
- chrism, cream and grime (the first from Greek, the second from French, in the 14th and 19th centuries, respectively, the last from Germanic)
- cow and beef (from Proto-Indo-European; the former through Germanic – i.e. natively via Old English – the latter through Latin via French)
- wheel, whorl, cyclone, cycle, circle and chakra (Germanic twice, Greek, Greek via Latin, Latin via French, and Sanskrit)
- frenetic and frantic (both from Greek, via Old French and Latin) – more English doublets from Greek in English words of Greek origin
- cave and cavern (from Latin cavus', via French and Germanic languages respectively)
- price, prize, praise, pry (a lever) and prix (all from French, some diverged in English)
- corn, kernel and grain (all ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *grnóm, the first two natively via Proto-Germanic (g → k), the last via Latin, borrowed from Old French)
- pique, pike (weapon) – both from Middle French pique
- mister, master, meister, maestro, Mistral (the name of a Mediterranean wind), magistrate are all ultimately derived from Latin magister, which means greater.
Norman vs. Modern French
Many words of French origin were borrowed twice or more. Most frequently, the first borrowing occurred shortly after the Normans took over England following the Battle of Hastings, while the second borrowing may have come into English during the sixteenth to nineteenth century, when France was at the height of its power and international influence. Notice that there are multiple doublets caused by the w → g sound change in French, which happened well after the Norman conquest. Several of these examples also reflect changes in French after the Norman period which caused the possible environments of [s] to be greatly reduced.
Derivative cognates are a classification of Chinese characters which have similar meanings and often the same etymological root, but which have diverged in pronunciation and meaning. An example is the doublet 考 and 老. At one time they were pronounced similarly and meant "old (person)." Now 老 is pronounced /lɑʊ̯˨˩˦/ in Standard Mandarin and mainly means "old" and 考 is pronounced /kʰɑʊ̯˨˩˦/ and mainly means "examine."
Differing literary and colloquial readings of certain Chinese characters are common doublets in many Chinese languages and the reading distinctions for certain phonetic features often typify a dialect group. Literary readings are usually used in formal loan words or names, when reading aloud and in formal settings, while colloquial readings are usually used in vernacular speech. For a given Chinese language, colloquial readings typically reflect native phonology, while literary readings typically originate from other Chinese languages, typically more prestigious varieties. Sometimes literary and colloquial readings of the same character have different meanings. For example, in Cantonese, the character 平 can have the colloquial pronunciation /pʰɛŋ˨˩/ which means "inexpensive," or the literary pronunciation /pʰɪŋ˨˩/ which means "flat."
In Japanese, doublets are most significant in borrowings from Chinese, and are visible as different on'yomi (Sino-Japanese readings) of kanji characters. There have been three major periods of borrowing from Chinese, together with some modern borrowings. These borrowings are from different regions (hence different Chinese languages) and different periods, and thus the pronunciations have varied, sometimes widely. However, due to consistent Chinese writing, with cognate morphemes represented by the same character, the etymological relation is clear. This is most significant at the level of morphemes, where a given character is pronounced differently in different words, but in some cases the same word was borrowed twice. In scholarly terms, these have been very valuable for reconstructing the sounds of Middle Chinese, and understanding how the pronunciations differed between Chinese regions and varied over time.
- (o-) pierdolić (fuck, babble, condemn, vulgar language), (o-) pierdzielić (babble, condemn, informal language)—cognate to Russian определять (determine)
- Bogdan, Bohdan (first names)
- upiór, wąpierz, wampir (English vampire; detailed out in Polish Wikipedia entry on etymology of wampir)
- szczać (piss, gross wording), sikać (spout, plain, informal wording), siusiać (pee, childish, polite euphemism; however one could argue the latter being simply an irregular diminutive derivation from the former)
- magister, majster, mistrz—from German Meister, Dutch meester, and from Latin magister; cognate to Italian maestro, English master, mister
As with many languages in Europe, a great deal of borrowing from Latin occurred during the Renaissance and the early modern era. Because Spanish was itself originally a dialect of Latin, this later borrowing created a number of doublets. Adding to this was Spain's conquest by the Berbers in the Middle Ages leading to another vector for creating doublets (Latin to Arabic to Spanish).
|Native Spanish||Borrowed from Latin||Borrowed from Arabic|
(key, a physical object)
(key, an essential concept)
- Walter William Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, "List of Doublets", p. 599ff full text
- Cognate, specifically, those within the same language
- False friends that may develop in the same way
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