Word of the Day: punch (the drink)


Word of the Day: punch (the drink)

No, it has nothing to do with packing a wallop.  When the British conquered India, they were delighted to discover real food and refreshments, among which was a delicious drink named in Hindi for having five ingredients.  The Hindi number is punj, as in the Punj-ab, the land of the five rivers (cf. Gaelic abhainn, brook, Welsh afon, river).
Hindi, descended from ancient Sanskrit, is a distant cousin of English and Latin and Greek and the other Indo- (notice, Indo) European languages.  Linguists say that the Proto-Indo-European word for five was *penkwe, the great-great-great grandpa of Greek pente, Welsh pump, Latin quinque, German fuenf, and English five.  From the Latin come French cinq (sank), Spanish cinco (thinco), Italian cinque (chingkway).

Grimm’s Law, we’ve seen, instructs us to look for Germanic f when we find Indo-European p.  But how the heck did the Romans end up with a qu in quinque?  And how the heck did the Greeks end up with the t in pente?  How did the Welsh end up with the second p in pump?

The small numbers are words for small children; maybe that can give us a clue.  The sounds p, t, k are all voiceless stops.  We make them by putting our lips or tongue in a certain position, blocking the air passages, and then suddenly letting go, without using the vocal cords (try it).  The thing is, when you’re learning a language, it’s sometimes hard to tell one stop from another.  The brilliant cartoon voice Mel Blanc understood this instinctively.  There’s the canary on the swing, singing,

I’m a tweet widdo bird in a diwded tayds,
Tweety’s my name but I don’t know my ayds …

And, suddenly: I tought I taw a puddy tat!  I did, I did taw a puddy tat!

That will get us the k for p in Latin and the p for k in Welsh and the t for k in Greek – and, eventually, the second f in Germanic.  The n that was preserved in German dropped away in Old English, as being a little hard to pronounce before the second f: *finf > fif, five.

You wouldn’t think that French cinq is related to English five, but it is, alors.

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