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So my question is two-fold. Specific and more general. I was doing some genealogy research and I was trying to read some Yiddish (I don’t understand Yiddish), and I thought a line said a certain person was a “governor”, only to realize that what it really said was he was “high-geboren” or “high-born”. Which got me thinking, is there any link etymologically between the words for “to govern” and “to bear”, or is the similarity I saw purely superficial? I thought they might have some link because “to carry” and “to lead” seemed similar enough meanings to come from the same word.

My second question: was my line of thinking in any way similar to what professional linguists do in the field; find similar sounding words and try to see if there is a connection? If not, could someone give a really brief primer on what linguists actually do with regards to determining etymological links between words? What is/are their process/processes?

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  • "Govern", is not related to "born", but it is related to "cyber". Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 10:07

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No, they are not related.

Bear has a very solid, established etymology going back from English to Proto-Germanic to Proto-Indo-European. The PIE root is *bʰer-, and it means ‘bear, carry’ all the way back to PIE.

Govern is a loan word in English that ultimately goes back to Ancient Greek κυβερνάω (kybernáō) ‘steer, drive, rule, govern’. The origins of this word are less secure – it may be a substrate word borrowed in from an language which was spoken in the area when the Greeks first arrived there, but which died out early on. Some inherited, Indo-European origins have also been suggested, primarily going back to a root like *kʷerb- (an unclear variant of the more well-established root *kʷerp- ‘turn’, related to whirl in English), but it’s rather a roundabout connection and not commonly accepted.

Certainly, if κυβερνάω is a substrate word, we can say for certain that there’s no etymological connection. But even if it is an inherited word, there’s no possible way to connect it to the bʰer- root. The crucial reason for that is that PIE *bʰ became in Greek (written φ, Romanised ph or f). Even if κυ- could be shown to be some sort of prefix, if the word had come from the *bʰer- root, it should have been κυφερνάω in Greek, which it isn’t.


As for your second question, that is more or less the basics of how linguists approach etymology, yes, but at a very primitive stage. It’s essentially a kind of ‘first step’ to identify words that look similar and have compatible meanings.

But after that stage comes the even more important part of checking sound laws. Over the past few centuries, historical linguists have accumulated an enormous body of rules that describe how particular sounds (and sequences of sounds) developed from one stage of a language to another. Given the number of languages in existence and how many stages of those languages are known, you can imagine the sheer volume of sound laws that have been identified – as well as ones that haven’t yet been identified.

The thing you always need to keep in mind is that it often doesn’t matter much how similar two words are now, because they may have come from the same source, but developed in separate directions over several thousand years to the point that they are now completely unrecognisable. For example, it’s fairly obvious that Icelandic tvo is cognate with English two; it’s less obvious, but still visible that Latin duo and Sanskrit dvá- are also cognates; but you’d have to be uncommonly astute to recognise without aid that Armenian երկու /jeɾˈku/ is also cognate.

In order to ascertain whether two words are actually cognates, you need to identify a likely source in a common ancestor of the two languages, and then go through all known sound changes from that common ancestor into each of the two languages to check whether the sounds would change in the right way to yield the words you started out with.

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    +1 for roundabout connection. I've always been impressed at the way Greek splattered the labiovelar reflexes of PIE *kʷel- all the way across the mouth from labial to velar, into πόλος 'pole, axis', τέλος 'end of cycle', and κύκλος 'circle'.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 17:20

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