Monday, May 1, 2017

Of wind, windows, and venting, Part 1: The Latin root vĕnt

[This entry is the first section ("The Latin root vĕnt") of Chapter 7 ("Of wind, windows, and venting: the root VENT-") of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unusual Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

The Spanish words viento ‘wind’, ventilar ‘ventilate’, ventilador ‘fan’, ventana ‘window’, and several more, as well as the English cognates, vent, ventilate, and ventilator, all contain the same root, namely vĕnt‑, which is found in its source word, the Latin word vĕntus (accusative wordform: vĕntum, root word: vĕnt‑), meaning ‘wind’.[1] This word is the direct ancestor of Spanish viento, with the same meaning. Interestingly, though much harder to see, the English word wind is also related to the Latin noun vĕntus, for the two are actually cognates in the sense of the word used in this book, since they come from the same source word. They are also cognates in the sense the word is used in linguistics, since they are patrimonial words in their respective languages, not loanwords, from the same source. The relationship between these two words is much more remote, however, one that goes further back in time to their common ancestor language: Proto-Indo-European.

We say that Spanish viento and English wind are cognates because they both descend from a word in an ancestor language that predates Latin and Old English by several thousand years. That ancestor language, of which we have no record whatsoever, but which we can surmise from the evidence left in the descendant languages, is called Proto-Indo-European (abbreviated as PIE; see Part I, Chapter 3). The story of Eng. wind and Sp. viento goes all the way back to the PIE verbal root -, which we surmise meant something like ‘to blow’. These two words actually seem to derive from the present participle of that verb, *we‑nt‑o‑ ‘blowing’.[2] From this same root - we also get the word weather in English, for instance, which in Old English was weder and meant ‘air, sky’ as well as ‘breeze, storm, tempest’.[3]


The thousands of years of separation explain why viento and wind look so different on the surface, even though the meaning of these words has not changed. Sometimes, meaning changes through time, even a great deal, but not in this case. Sound changes have taken place in both languages. If we go by the spelling, only one letter is the same in these words, namely the letter n. However, appearances can be deceiving if we know what to look for.

The first clue is that the letter v in Latin was pronounced not like it is pronounced in either English or Spanish nowadays, but rather the way the letter w is pronounced in English (the phonetic symbol for this sound is [w] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, abbreviated IPA; see Part I, Chapter 7). This allows us to make a connection between two sounds in the pair viento and wind.

Another clue that these words are not so different is that the sound of the letter e in Latin ventum [ɛ] and the sound of the letter i in English wind [ɪ] are not very different phonetically. Make the sound e as in the word met and then the sound i as in the word mitt, over and over, and you will see that there is just a slight change of the tongue position: a little higher for i than for e. Because of this, we find that it is very common for an e to change (mutate) to i in languages through time, and vice versa, sometimes for reasons having to do with influence from surrounding sounds and other times for reasons unknown.

Finally, we also know that the letter t (as in the word viento) and the letter d (as in the word wind) are very similar phonetically, both in the way they sound and the way they are produced. Say tip and dip one after the other several times and you will notice that what you do with the tongue in the mouth to produce these words is identical for both words. The only thing that differentiates a t and a d is that to make the d, but not the t, your vocal cords (two muscle folds in the larynx) are vibrating (cf. Part I, Chapter 7). Not that you could detect this vibration by putting your fingers over your Adam’s apple, which is something you can do for other pairs of sounds, such as s and z, as in sip and zip, which differ in exactly the same way ([s] is produced without vibration of the vocal chords and [z] is produced with vibration). The reason for this is that the duration of the consonants t and d is so brief, around 1/10 of a second. However, the vibration is there and it is the only auditive cue that we have to distinguish these two sounds, and thus pairs of words such as tip and dip. Humans are wired for making that sort of distinction. Because of this similarity, it is not uncommon for t’s to mutate into d’s, and vice versa, in the history of languages, typically depending on what the surrounding sounds are like.

So, we can already explain or at least understand the connections between the first four letters of English wind and Latin ventum. The ‑um part of ventum in Latin is an inflectional ending, not part of the word’s root, which was vent‑ (see Part I, Chapters 5 & 8). The ancestor language of English had an inflection for this word too, but English lost most such endings over a thousand years ago (in Old English, the word was also wind, but in Proto-Germanic, the ancestor language of English and other European languages, it was *windaz, where ‑az was the inflectional ending). The m of Latin ventum was lost as Latin became Spanish and the (short) u (sometimes written ŭ) mutated to an o, which is another common type of change for the same reason we saw above for e and i.

As for the final difference between the Latin root vent‑ and the Spanish root vient‑, we find that, on its way to becoming Spanish, Latin short e (sometimes written ĕ) always mutated to the diphthong ie when the vowel was stressed. This is a very regular change, just like the other ones we saw earlier. That is, whenever a short Latin ĕ was stressed in Latin, it changed to ie in Spanish (cf. Part I, Chapter 10, §10.3.2). This explains all e/ie alternations in Spanish words and wordforms, of which there are many. For instance, Spanish has e in setenta ‘seventy’ but ie in siete ‘seven’. Notice that the e in setenta is not stressed, whereas the ie in siete is. Learners of Spanish are very well aware that this alternation exists in the present tense of hundreds of so-called stem changing verbs as well, e.g. tienes ‘you have’, with stressed ie, but tenemos ‘we have’, with unstressed e.

[1] In linguistics, root word or just root is ‘the form of a word after all affixes are removed’ (Sp. palabra raíz or just raíz). The stem is the form of a word after all inflectional (non-derivational) affixes are removed (Sp. base or radical).

[2] A more recent reconstruction of the root - is *h₂weh₁‑ and a more recent reconstruction of the stem (root plus affixes) *we‑nt‑o‑ ‘blowing’ is *h₂wéh₁n̥tos (for non-Anatolian Proto-Indo-European). The Pokorny reconstruction for this root is is u̯ē-, with the variant u̯ə-.

[3] There is a different word spelled wind in English, namely the wind that means ‘move in or take a twisting or spiral course’ (COED). The latter wind2 is pronounced [ˈwaɪ̯nd], instead of [ˈwɪnd]. Thus the two words are homographs (same spelling) but not homophones (same sound), and therefore, they are not homonyms (same spelling and sound) (cf. Part I, Chapter 6). This second word wind2 is probably distantly related to the first one. It comes from Old English windan 'go rapidly, twine', of Germanic origin and related to the words wander and wend. This second wind2 has been traced this word’s stem back to  Proto-Germanic *windaną, and it goes back to the Proto-Indo-European word *wéndʰ-e-ti, derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *wendʰ‑ ‘to turn, wind, braid’, which is probably ultimately derived from the same root *wē‑ that is the source of wind1.

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