Slip of the longue

A lion. 'Leo' in Latin, not 'deo'.

A lion. ‘Leo’ in Latin, not ‘deo’.

But for a silly mistake, I would have been a dinguist. You know, a dinguist – a specialist in dinguistics.

The mistake was not my own; it’s the old Romans what did it. And when I say old, I mean really old. Older even than Caesar, Cicero and Seneca, the authors who wrote the sort of Latin we are still somewhat familiar with – the classy, classical sort.

Before their Latin, there was Old Latin, and though it looked grammar-schoolish enough, it was different in many small ways. For instance, it had the word dingua for ‘tongue’ and ‘language’. Caesar, Cicero and Seneca would consider that old-fashioned; the Latin equivalent of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. They would write lingua. And it’s in their footsteps that we follow every time we use the word linguistics.

(Aside 1: Dingua has an even older, Indo-European ancestor, the rather tongue-twisting dnghwa. This it shares with other words for ‘tongue’ and ‘language’, such as our own tongue and the Irish teanga and apparently even the Russian jazyk, though I’ll be damned if I can see how dhngwa morphed into jazyk.)

But why was it that the Old Latin dingua turned into the Classical Latin lingua? It’s not a common sound shift in Latin, this d to l change. I mean, it’s not as if litterae Latinae (Latin literature) began life as ditterae Datinae. So this special case needs a special explanation, and etymologists have found one. The human tongue, they argue, is good at one more thing besides helping us talk, and that’s licking. Or in Latin: lingere. These old Romans must have felt that dingua would sound just that little bit more ‘tonguey’ if it contained a hint of ‘licking’. And that’s why they turned it into lingua. Or so the experts claim.

(Aside 2: The Latin word for ‘licking’ can still be found in the second part of our eleven-letter word cunnilingus. This reminds me that at some point I put forward the idea of giving my recent book the title Funnilingus. Fortunately, my experienced and wise publisher decided against it and stuck to Lingo. Which is Latin for ‘I’m licking’, by the way.)

So, if the Romans hadn’t taken to mispronouncing dingua as lingua, we would now have called the study of language ‘dinguistics’, and we wouldn’t have thought it remarkable. Last year’s mistake, jeered at by pedants, is today’s norm, fiercely defended by same.

The same lingua has also given us, via a detour through French, the word language. So without the classical slip-up, modern multidinguals would have spoken several danguages. There’s something I should have mentioned in Dingo.

1 thought on “Slip of the longue

  1. Is it actually true to say that “it’s not a common sound shift in Latin, this d to l change”? It depends on what one calls common, I guess. Most d’s have not changed into l’s, but there are three more that have: lacrima (‘tear’) used to be dacrima, olor and odor (‘smell’) are twins and the word levir for ‘brother-in-law’ seems to have started life with a d as well. All of which makes the story about lingua being influenced by lingere somewhat less likely, I find. (Thank you, Cor Cornelissen.)


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