When we start to look at the roots of English words it immediately becomes obvious why so many of our words differ so much from their Spanish, French and Italian equivalents: we use Germanic roots and the others are more influenced by Latin.
We say ‘weather’, but it’s ‘tiempo’ in Spanish and Italian and ‘temps’ in French. These two words are derived from the Latin ‘tempus’ but the English get their word from the Germanic ‘Weder’. The Germans say ‘Wetter’ and other Germanic versions include ‘Wedar’ and ‘Wetar’.
The same kind of thing happens with other words associated with the weather. English takes ‘cloud’ from the Germanic ‘Clud’, ‘Clowde’ and similar words, while Spanish (‘nube’) and French (‘nuage’) have their roots in the Latin ‘nubes’.
We get our word ‘rain’ from the Anglo-Saxon ‘regn’ and similar words include the German ‘Regan’ and the Gothic ‘rign’. These words are not allied to the Latin ‘rigare’ which means to moisten. The Spanish word is ‘lluvia’ and the French say ‘pluie’, both of which come from the Latin ‘pluvia’.
There are two words connected with rain you may not have come across. One is ‘driffle’ which means to rain fitfully or in sparse drops. If it’s raining heavily you may want to find ‘ombrifuge’, a place where you can shelter from the rain. Both of these words are so rare they’re not even in the two-volume Shorter Oxford or the full size Webster’s.
When conditions are right and the rain turns to snow, the Latin root ‘nevis’ prevails in Spain and France, giving ‘nieve’ and ‘neige’, respectively. It also gives us the name of Scotland’s highest mountain.
But in northern countries we find a series of words such as ‘sneo’, ‘sneeuw’, ‘sjnór’, ‘snaiws’, and not forgetting ‘snaw’ if you’re speaking Old English or Scottish.
You get the same divide with the English ‘wind’, which comes from a long line of similar Germanic words including the Old Norse and Icelandic ‘vindr’ and the Middle English ‘wynd’. The Latin root ‘ventus’ gives the Spanish ‘viento’ and the French ‘vent’.
The differences aren’t so great when we get to ‘thunder’ which comes from the Old High German ‘Thonar’ and similar words, most of which are related to the Latin ‘tonare’ which gives the Spanish ‘trueno’ and the French ‘tonnerre’.
The English word ‘storm’ comes from the High German ‘Stürm’ and similar words. Spanish and French use Latin roots, but different ones. The Spanish ‘tormenta’ is from the Latin ‘tormenta’, but the French prefer the Latin root ‘aura’, which gives them ‘orage’. Spanish also has ‘oraje’, although I’ve never heard anyone use it. However, I’m familiar with the Mallorquín ’s’oratge’, if only because there was a very good restaurant of that name in Ciudad Jardín.
However, it’s the blazing sun that gives us cause for comment or complaint at the moment. We take our word from the Old English ‘sunne’, and other countries have versions such as ‘sunna’, ‘zon’ and ‘Sonne’. The Spanish ‘sol’ and the French ‘soleil’ use the Latin ‘sol’ as their root. But some northern nations also use the Latin ‘sol’ as their root via Indo-European languages, so we have ‘sol’ in Old English, Old Norse and Icelandic.
There are some 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world today and the greatest of them all is English. The experts reckon that in 300 years time only about 24 of these languages will still be in use. The top three will be English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
English is the world’s richest language partly because it has always had the ability to absorb new words from other lands and make them part of the English vocabulary. Other major languages, such as Spanish and French, have been unable to make full use of words from other cultures. Both languages are the worse for it.
One of the reasons why English is so good at taking foreign words on permanent loan is that we don’t have an academy of the language trying to ensure English remains pure. The French have their academicians who are forever complaining about the use of foreign words, mainly English.
They frown and gesticulate when their fellow-countrymen talk about ‘le weekend’. But weekend is so much snappier than ‘fin de semaine’ that you can hardly blame the French for preferring the English word.
The same thing was happening in Spain with the weekend word. In Spanish it’s ‘fin de semana’, another mouthful, so Spaniards also used weekend. But Spaniards solved that problem all by themselves. Instead of ‘fin de semana’, someone somewhere shortened it to a terse ‘finde’. The idea caught on and nowadays everyone says ‘finde’ for weekend.
The Spanish language is also encumbered by its purity watchdog, the Real Academia Española which also tries to ensure that Spanish isn’t in any way polluted by the use of foreign words, mainly English. But the academicians are losing the battle: new English words creep into use every day and there are now hundreds of them.
Unlike the French, though, Spaniards invariably give English words a phonetic spelling and pronunciation. So football became ‘fútbol’. And when jogging became popular all over the world in Spain it was known as ‘footing’. I could never find out where they got that word from. Perhaps it’s just that Spain is different.
But eventually ‘footing’ went out of fashion and keep-fit aficionados started to call it ‘running’. I still see the running word in print, but fewer people use it in conversation.
The Majorcans and Spaniards I know who do any running no longer use that word: they’ve gone back to saying ‘correr’, the Spanish word for to run. So a friend says: “Los jueves voy a correr.” (On Thursdays I go running).
The English, on the other hand, have no problems when borrowing foreign words. We can take a seemingly difficult German word like ‘Schadenfreude’ and make it part of English vocabulary while retaining the German pronunciation and spelling — although we write it with a lower case ‘s’.
The word is made of of ‘Schaden’ (harm) and ‘Freude’ (joy) and means pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune — often a co-worker or neighbour one doesn’t especially like.
I have never heard of anyone (Oxford dons, university philologists, top linguists) complain about the thousands of foreign words that are sprinkled throughout any English language dictionary.
Many British people aren’t even aware that these words, most of them in their original spelling and pronunciation, came from a foreign language.
This ability to soak up words from other languages is one of the reasons why so many English words have virtually the same meaning. This gives English a special richness and also explains why it lends itself so easily to punning.