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The Wiktionary page on the English word "with" < *wi says that the meaning of "with" shifted in Middle English to denote association instead of opposition. The latter sense is still present in phrases like "He picked a fight with the older boy" (opposition), whereas we see the former sense everywhere, e.g. "I walked to school with my friends today."

Do we have any more information on how or why this shift may have happened? Are there other descendants of *wi that reflect this shift as well, or only the preposition "with"? The alternative to "with" may well have been "mid" (< *me, cognate with German mit), still seen in words like "midwife". Any idea why this fell out of use?

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    That is very interesting, I was wondering why old english uses "mid" but we say "with." Here's hoping you get an answer. – Matthew T. Scarbrough Sep 29 '17 at 18:10
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“With” is originally a shortening of “wither”, cognate with German wider “against” and, further afield, with Sanskrit vitaram “further”, from the Indo-European particle of separation *wi- and the comparative suffix *-tero-.

The semantic development of English “with” is neatly described in the Oxford English Dictionary as follows:

The prevailing senses of this prep[osition] in the earliest periods are those of opposition (‘against’) and of motion or rest in proximity (‘towards’, ‘alongside’), which are now current only in certain traditional collocations or specific applications. These notions readily pass into fig. uses denoting various kinds of relations, among which those implying reciprocity are at first prominent. The most remarkable development in the signification of with consists in its having taken over in the Middle English period the chief senses belonging properly to Old English mid mid prep.1 (cognate with Greek μετά with). These senses are mainly those denoting association, combination or union, instrumentality or means, and attendant circumstance. These are all important senses of Old Norse við, to which fact their currency and ultimate predominance in the English word are partly due. The last important stage was the extension of with from the instrument to the agent, in which use it was current for different periods along with of and through, and later with by, which finally superseded the other three. The range of meanings in general has no doubt been enlarged by association with Latin cum. The interaction of senses and sense-groups has been such that the position of a particular sense in the order of development is often difficult to determine.

In other words: the shift in meaning of the English preposition was at least partially influenced by the usage in Old Norse.

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  • Thanks for the clear and informative answer. Particle of separation is a useful description of *wi. The Sanskrit cognate is also quite cool, combining two familiar parts. – ktm5124 Sep 30 '17 at 22:59
  • It would be interesting to fill in two details. First, how did Norse come to influence the English preposition? Second, was its association with the Latin cum primarily a result of translating the Vulgate into English? – ktm5124 Sep 30 '17 at 23:03
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    @ktm5124. The Vikings ruled a large slice of England in the early Middle Ages. Thus there are lots of Nordic words and structures in English. – fdb Oct 2 '17 at 12:42

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