The English word that hasn't changed sound or meaning in millenia

In summary, Professor Guy says that the word lox has not changed its pronunciation in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular type of salmon. He goes on to say that the story of how the word got its pronunciation is really interesting, and that it is a good scrabble word.
  • #1

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Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University, has a favorite word - lox. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

https://nautil.us/blog/the-english-word-that-hasnt-changed-in-sound-or-meaning-in-8000-years

How scholars have traced the word’s pronunciation over thousands of years is also really cool. The story goes back to Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Person Who Knew Everything.” The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”

I enjoy studying languages, cultures and world history with all the historical inter-relationships and influences.
 
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  • #2
Thanks. Now I understand why we say "Lachs" (pronounced like lux).
 
  • #3
fresh_42 said:
Thanks. Now I understand why we say "Lachs" (pronounced like lux).
Huh? Surely the German word Lachs is pronounced like the English word lax? Lux is pronounced like lucks in English and like the English word looks in German. Or am I konfus?
 
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  • #4
pbuk said:
Huh? Surely the German word Lachs is pronounced like the English word lax? Lux is pronounced like lucks in English and like the English word looks in German. Or am I konfus?
'Lachs' (German for salmon) is pronounced like the English word lux, with 'u' as in luck, which is an 'a' in languages which pronounce as written (Italian, Spanish, German, Hungarian, etc.). And 'Lachs' and 'lox' are very similar and probably of the same origin.

What did you mean by 'lax'? LA international?
 
  • #5
fresh_42 said:
'Lachs' (German for salmon) is pronounced like the English word lux, with 'u' as in luck
Wow, I didn't know that. Of course it makes sense - rhymes with Bach (as in the composers).

fresh_42 said:
What did you mean by 'lax'? LA international?
Lax is the opposite of strict, almost rhymes with facts.

I'm pretty sure that the word lox has been (re)introduced into modern English from Yiddish. In Britain it is only ever used in the context of a lox bagel.
 
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  • #6
pbuk said:
Lax is the opposite of strict, almost rhymes with facts.
Oh, yes. This is 'lax' in German, too.
 
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  • #8
fresh_42 said:
'Lachs' (German for salmon) is pronounced like the English word lux, with 'u' as in luck, which is an 'a' in languages which pronounce as written (Italian, Spanish, German, Hungarian, etc.). And 'Lachs' and 'lox' are very similar and probably of the same origin.
If you watch old British movies they talk like that.

My lacky ket is hippy.

Nowadays most British speakers would say something much closer to:

My lucky cat is happy.
 
  • #9
Astronuc said:
Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University, has a favorite word - lox. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

https://nautil.us/blog/the-english-word-that-hasnt-changed-in-sound-or-meaning-in-8000-years
I enjoy studying languages, cultures and world history with all the historical inter-relationships and influences.
I would say most people in the UK would never have heard of lox. The first time I saw it was when I went to New York. I guessed what it meant because I knew some German!

A good scrabble word. If you played it in the UK your opponent would probably reach for the dictionary!
 
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  • #10
PeroK said:
I would say most people in the UK would never have heard of lox. The first time I saw it was when I went to New York. I guessed what it meant because I knew some German!

A good scrabble word. If you played it in the UK your opponent would probably reach for the dictionary!
Yes. Never heard of it and I am a brit.
Lox if I saw it I would pronounce, 'locks' what a key is for.
Lach looks like a Scottish word, English speaker would say it like 'Latch' on a door or lak if you were a Scot but with a back of the throat thing a bit like Loch as in Loch Ness, where the monster lives.
 
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  • #11
NASA popularized the acronym LOX for Liquid OXygen in 1960's American English, pronounced the same as the word for salmon. Edible lox in modern use refers to trimmed salmon with skin and bones removed; a pure form requiring careful preparation not unlike LOX used as rocket fuel oxidizer and subsequently to provide breathable artificial atmosphere on manned flights.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by nearly identical words among disparate languages but it can be jarring to encounter. The obverse situation of language drift appears equally compelling.

According to anthropologists including author Malcom Margolin, the Ohlone tribes living in my old home area of the Santa Cruz mountains spoke mutually incomprehensible languages despite living within walking distance and enjoying to our modern eyes nearly identical cultures; often sharing natural resources such as tule, acorn and seabird egg gathering in season.

Legend has it that Bay Area native people wore facial tattoos to determine line, clan and moiety in order to avoid pairing with too closely related members of other tribes speaking languages as different as modern Chinese and Japanese, or French and Portuguese. Perhaps the tendency for linguistic drift makes identical "old" words in geographically distinct languages more startling.
 
  • #12
Reminds me of the Canadian word that hasn’t changed meaning or pronunciation. “eh?”
 
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  • #13
chemisttree said:
Reminds me of the Canadian word that hasn’t changed meaning or pronunciation. “eh?”
Probably related to the universally used and understood word "huh". (A request for clarification.)
 
  • #14
pinball1970 said:
Yes. Never heard of it and I am a brit.
I'm shocked. James Bond knew it! How much more British can you get? See You Only Live Twice. "It’s an American name for smoked salmon. But it’s also the technical name for liquid oxygen. Which makes rocket fuel."

(And the script was written by Roald Dahl, who was Welsh. Welsh-ish.).

This sounds less like a word that's been unchanged and more like a word that's changed like every other word and ended up where it started.
 
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  • #15
Vanadium 50 said:
... See You Only Live Twice. ... the script was written by Roald Dahl
Today I Learned ^^^
 
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  • #16
The James Bond of film is as much a creation of Roald Dahl as Ian Fleming. You can definitely see a difference pre- and post- Dahl, with many of the traditions originating with Dahl.
 
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  • #17
The word "lox" (in terms of salmon) is a Yiddish word. And so to call it an English word that has never changed is misleading, since it is a borrowed word from another language (Yiddish).
 
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  • #18
StatGuy2000 said:
The word "lox" (in terms of salmon) is a Yiddish word. And so to call it an English word that has never changed is misleading, since it is a borrowed word from another language (Yiddish).
Are you sure? The German dictionary for the word Lachs says
Middle High German, Old High German lahs, origin not clear, maybe originally = the spotted (after the stippling)
and I still think that 'Lachs' and 'lox' are of the same origin.Add on: It seems to be no contradiction, since the Yiddish 'laks' comes from 'lahs,' too, ...
1934, American English, from Yiddish laks, from Middle High German lahs "salmon," from Proto-Germanic *lakhs-, from the common IE root for the fish, *laks- (source also of Lithuanian lašiša, Russian losos, Polish łosoś "salmon").
 
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  • #19
fresh_42 said:
Add on: It seems to be no contradiction, since the Yiddish 'laks' comes from 'lahs,' too, ...
I was part-way through pointing this out but I'm glad you got there first!
 
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  • #20
fresh_42 said:
Are you sure? The German dictionary for the word Lachs says

and I still think that 'Lachs' and 'lox' are of the same origin.Add on: It seems to be no contradiction, since the Yiddish 'laks' comes from 'lahs,' too, ...
Keep in mind that Yiddish (also referred to as Judeo-German) is derived from High German -- the exact timing of the derivation is a matter of some dispute among linguists, but there is little doubt that it was based out of the High German dialects that Jews who migrated into Central Europe (the ancestors of modern Ashkenazi Jews) were exposed to. See link below:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiddish

So it shouldn't be too surprising that both Yiddish and German would share a substantial portion of their vocabulary, among them "lox" (or "Lachs" in German).

But the point of this thread is that somehow "lox" is an English word that hasn't changed sound or meaning, and I was pointing out that "lox" is a loanword from another language.
 
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  • #21
Perhaps, I should have made the title, "The English word that hasn't changed sound or meaning in millenia?" Note that it is sound and meaning, which does not include spelling.

The sound and meaning is Proto-Indo-European, which involves central Asia and Europe. The migration history between Europe and Central Asia gets murky as one looks further back in time.

I would expect that 'lox' or 'lachs' and the meaning of the fish called 'salmon' originated in regions where 'salmon' existed. It appears that 'salmon' came later.
 
  • #22
Astronuc said:
Perhaps, I should have made the title, "The English word that hasn't changed sound or meaning in millenia?" Note that it is sound and meaning, which does not include spelling.
No, the point is that although the word may now have a similar sound and meaning to that which it had thousands of years ago, it has only recently been reintroduced to the (at least British) English language and so for (possibly hundreds of) years it didn't have any sound or meaning.
 
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  • #23
After the reference in post #7, citing OED, the cognate 'lax' was in use in Old English (as leax). It went obsolete only three hundred years ago, and has been retained in use in the north of Great Britain before revival at unspecified later date. The reintroduction of 'lox' via Yiddish was into US English, which might have then spread to the UK - although it should be noted that at least one dictionary I use lists 'lox' as US dialect only. So there seems to be a two-pronged revival, via slightly different paths on each side of the pond.
 
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  • #24
I was looking at the etymology of 'salmon', and found reference to "Middle English samoun, from Anglo-Norman French saumoun, from Latin salmo, salmon- . The spelling with -l- is influenced by Latin," the statement which is attributed to the Oxford dictionary from Oxford Languages.

It is conceivable that there could be two or more societies developing independently in a geographic area that develop the different nouns, based on sounds, for the same object.

When there are two or more words (and sounds) meaning the same thing, perhaps one or more fall into disuse for some time, or perhaps one of the work takes on a modified meaning, as in smoked fish as opposed to the creature before it is prepared as food.

I'm reminded on the nouns for tap, faucet and spigot, meaning a valve to control fluid, which could also be a spile, but that is slightly functionally different.
 
  • #25
Astronuc said:
Perhaps, I should have made the title, "The English word that hasn't changed sound or meaning in millenia?" Note that it is sound and meaning, which does not include spelling.
But wouldn't we automatically end up with words that already existed in Proto-Indo-European like mama and papa? If I remember correctly, then the amount of change is even a measure of how far back words can be traced.

I also observed that English made a transition in sound within the last few hundred years. Shakespeare's English sounded much more "as written" as nowaday's language. Scottish has still this property for many words.
 
  • #26
fresh_42 said:
But wouldn't we automatically end up with words that already existed in Proto-Indo-European like mama and papa? If I remember correctly, then the amount of change is even a measure of how far back words can be traced.

I also observed that English made a transition in sound within the last few hundred years. Shakespeare's English sounded much more "as written" as nowaday's language. Scottish has still this property for many words.
I am going to try something, I am meeting three friends today and I am going to ask them if they have heard of this word, 'Lox'. A nice spread geographically in terms of where they grew up (Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield) well educated ( Physics Biology and Economics UG two with masters) and good pub quizzers.
I will report back with results.
 
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  • #27
Astronuc said:
“The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’

fresh_42 said:
Thanks. Now I understand why we say "Lachs" (pronounced like lux).
In Swedish we call it "lax".
 
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  • #28
DennisN said:
In Swedish we call it "lax".

pinball1970 said:
I am going to try something, I am meeting three friends today and I am going to ask them if they have heard of this word, 'Lox'. A nice spread geographically in terms of where they grew up (Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield) well educated ( Physics Biology and Economics UG two with masters) and good pub quizzers.
I will report back with results.

Next, we need someone from north of Hadrian's Wall.
 
  • #31
fresh_42 said:
Yes, but how was it before the English murdered Maria Stuart when Scottland wasn't occupied?
Few people in Scotland would know who you meant by Maria Stuart. To us she's Mary, Queen of Scots.
 
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  • #35
They did not know it. 'A good Scrabble word.'
 
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