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The Genetics of Language

21 July 2009 | Category: Language

Genetics is the study of inherited variation. While it usually refers to biological heredity, genetics can apply to language as well. Language, like life, is constantly evolving. From the time when an utterance is first given meaning, it is subjected to powerful forces of change. Some words are never more than passing fads, and they die within a generation. Other words take a strong hold. Over time, these survivors mutate and their families expand. The largest word families can fill pages of dictionaries in several languages. What better word-family to exemplify the genetics of words than the family that includes the word genetics itself?

The English noun genetics, first used in its current sense in 1905, is immediately descended from the adjective genetic, meaning "of or relating to origin or development." Genetic, in turn, is derived from the Latin word genesis, borrowed from the Greek word γένεσις (genesis), which means origin or creation—you may recognize it as the name of the first book of Judeo-Christian scripture. Finally, the word genesis itself stems from the Proto-Indo-European root gen-, meaning "to produce" or "to be born."

The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) was spoken around five or six thousand years ago. Its use predates the development of writing, which means that this language left no direct record of its existence. The exact time and place when it was spoken is hard to trace with certainty. Nonetheless, linguists are certain that PIE existed, because it left children: other languages that were written and that are so similar they must have sprung from a common ancestor. These related languages, which originated as regional dialects of PIE and slowly drifted apart into separate tongues, form a group called the Indo-European language family. This family today includes over 400 languages, including English and its close relatives like German and French, as well as more distant cousins like Greek, Russian, Persian, and Hindi. All these languages have a common origin, which means they are endowed with many similarities. Look, for example, at the word used to mean "mother" in various Indo-European languages:

English German French Greek Russian Persian Hindi
Mother Mutter Mère μητέρα (mētéra) мать (mat') مادر (madar) माता (mataji)

These words are too similar to have come about independently—they share a common root. By comparing the word for mother in various Indo-European languages, linguists can reconstruct a hypothetical root word in the Proto-Indo-European language. In this case, the root word is believed to be mater. This root word has also mutated in other directions, so a number of modern English words can be counted as its children, including maternal, matron, matriarch, matrix, and matriculate.

The linguistic ancestor of genetics, the PIE root gen-, also spawned a large family. Once again, gen- meant something along the lines of "to be born" or "to produce," which led directly to the word genesis for creation, as well as similar words like generate and engender. The same root also gave rise to words that name one who produces, such as progenitor and generator, words to name the organs used in reproduction, genitals, and words to name what is born, the progeny or a new generation of children. These children carry the genes of their parents, and are all members of the same family, or genus.

Just like the members of biological family share visible characteristics determined by their genes, words with a common genetic heritage share sounds, spellings, and meanings that become obvious to anyone who looks for a family resemblance. Of course, some relationships of meaning are more distant than others. Recall the word genus, meaning a family or category. Aristotle defined a genus as a broad category with smaller subsets called species. While members of a species share specific similarities, members of a genus only share general ones—for that which is general applies to a whole class of things. The word generic arose in turn to describe products that don't stand out individually from their category—crisped rice, as opposed to Kellogg's Rice Krispies.

Another branch of words descended from gen- took on new meanings when they came to define attributes of the larger category they name. The PIE root gen- had to do with giving birth and family relationships. Over time, words descended from gen- came to classify people according to their birth and family, as members of the gentry or gentility; of noble birth. This later gave rise to the word gentleman. More words arose to name the perceived qualities of those in the genteel classes. Those of high birth are not rough like the peasantry, but gentle. They are well-mannered and well to do, and can afford to give and be generous.

In other situations, the meaning of a word can change along with changing beliefs and understandings in society. The pagans in Europe, for example, believed that a plethora of gods and spirits roamed the earth, and they thought that every child received a guiding spirit at birth called a genius. Over time, people stopped believing in the literal notion of a guiding spirit, but they continued to use genius to describe a person's natural disposition, and today genius still refers to the special talents or intellect that a person seems to be born with—and, more recently, it also names the people endowed with such qualities. Meanwhile, the sense of the word referring to spirits morphed, and today it survives as genie. The word genial is also closely related, as it can describe people with a kind and cheerful spirit.

The words presented so far clearly exhibit their relationship. Although their meanings have shifted, the sounds and spellings have been fairly consistent, and the gen- root has remained intact. Even in Proto-Indo-European times, however, this root had altered forms. Today many cognates preserve the meaning of gen- while including major changes in spelling and pronunciation. Look at the very word cognates, meaning words of common origin. It comes from joining co-, meaning "together," with -gnate, meaning "born." Cognates are words that were "born together." The -gnate stem is descended from the same gen- root as the other words you've seen, and after all, there isn't all that much difference between -gnate and a word like generate. Just enough has changed to make the relationship slightly more obscure.

Of course, the word gnate doesn't exist on its own, but it has relations in other words. The letters gn often simply make the n sound, and this has given rise to cognates that have dropped the g entirely. Consider the word natal, an adjective meaning "of or relating to birth." It shares an obvious relationship to gen- in meaning, but at first glance it bears little resemblance in sound or spelling. Children, however, don't always look like their grandparents. Sometimes it's more useful to compare cousins, like natal and genital. Suddenly the resemblance becomes apparent. The new root, stripped of the g, has given rise to other similar words like nascent, native, and nativity.

Other words have gone through even more radical changes. The word kin, which refers to family relationships, is a corruption of gen-. Likewise, related objects are of the same kind, a word that derives from kin. The word king is also part of this set, referring either to the chief among kin or the kin of the nobility.

Ultimately, the gen- family is so old and so large that I could go on listing its members for pages. Linguists think that words as varied as engine, know, can, and gender all fit somewhere into the gen- family. These words all have a unique genetic connection with their common ancestor, and a unique story about how they came into being. The process continues today, as words continue to shift in meaning and pronunciation. By seeking out and recognizing the shifting relationships between words, we can both better decipher the cognates in other languages, and also grasp at the deeper meanings and subtleties of our own language. After all, every word speaks volumes when you can glimpse its DNA.


The definitions and etymologies presented in this article are based on those in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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