Saturday, October 18, 2008

Proto-Indo-European Transformers

Remnants of ancient languages do tend to crop up in the strangest places. A lot of these happen to be in the sphere of popular culture, a fact that seriously challenges the old worn-out idea that ancient languages are just that - old and worn-out, interesting only to small cliques of academics (or possibly to more fashionable, albeit somewhat bizarre, cliques of the more Donna Tart-esque variety).

In fact, one can find references to very old linguistic items in the most popular of cultural outpourings, especially if the language happens to be English. There are many such examples, some of which I intend to discuss in this blog.

One instance to begin with is something as "low-brow" as Transformers, that great main-stay of western eighties mythology. Look at the names of the big robots, and smile:

Optimus Prime: Latin through and through, from optimus ("best") and primus ("first"). Primus even happens to be the name of the Transformers "god" created by genius comic book writer Simon Furman.

Megatron: The beginning of the name of this great bad guy is of course as classic as can be, reflecting the greek adjective megas, megalê, mega ("big, large, great"), itself an inheritance from the Proto-Indo-European adjective *meĝh2- (whose root is also reflected in words such as English "much", Swedish mycket , Gothic mikils, Sanskrit mahi, and Hittite mekki-).

Fortress Maximus: Here we find Latin maximus ("greatest"), again from Proto-Indo-European *meĝh2-.

Even the word "Autobot" is of course of ancient origin: "auto-" from Greek autos ("self", here from the word "automobile") and "-bot" from "robot", which is itself a loan from Czech, where the root means "work, labor". This Slavic word is from the Indo-European root *h3erbh-, which originally meant "join a different social group" (a meaning preserved in the Hittite verb harp-), whence the meaning "become a slave, become an unfree worker". The same root is reflected in German Arbeit.


venanzio said...

Does this mean you're abandoning your Swedish blog, or are you just expanding? At first, I seriously considered writing in English myself, but finally decided on Swedish. Commenting in English on stuff in Swedish newspapers just didn't seem right.
The coincidence is truly remarkable!

Ola Wikander said...

No, definitely not abandoning the Swedish one: just going international ;-)

Isn't it? It must be a sign - of... uhhm... something or other!

Martin said...

Could you harp- in both directions in Hittite? "As thanks for my services to the King's favourite concubine, I have been allowed to harp into the nobility." Or did the word only denote a lowered status?

Ola Wikander said...

Hmm ... if I remeber correctly, harp- is used in a variety of contexts, not only those implying a decrease in status. As an example, it is used for cattle wandering out of the pens and suchlike.

Martin said...

Thank you. I am suddenly reminded of the German term for a period of Hungarian prehistory, Harpadenzeit. This word hasn't got a single Google hit. (-;