Where Boys, Girls and Children Come From

By Hlebec, Boris | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, January-July 2012 | Go to article overview

Where Boys, Girls and Children Come From


Hlebec, Boris, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


ABSTRACT

The etymology of three very frequent English words child, girl and boy has been notoriously obscure because researchers have failed to pay attention to possible Slavic influence. This article is aimed at rectifying this major oversight by providing abundant evidence of both formal and semantic similarities between the English items and the corresponding Slavic ones and at establishing Scandinavian as an intermediary for girl and boy, no such connector being necessary for child.

1. child

In the Germanic sphere there are a number of cognates of Mode child (< OE cild/t[??]ild/>/t[??]i:ld/'baby' > 'boy or girl, offspring') and colt 'young male of horse; inexperienced person'. The form child bears the greatest similarity to the Gothic noun kilpei 'uterus, womb', while colt is more like OSwed. kulder/kolder > Mod. Swed. kult, kulting 'half-grown animal; boy' and Dan. kuld 'children from the same marriage; litter of animals'. The Gothic nouns kilpei and inkilpo both meaning 'womb' are believed to come from *kwel- to which the dental suffix was added. The Swedish and Danish forms stem from the expanded IE apophonic variant *kwol- 'tribe', which also has a reflex in OGr. kholpos 'womb, vagina' (*kwol- + -p). All these forms may claim affinity with child on the ground of both form and meaning.

Although the primary meaning 'baby; the unborn or newly born human being; foetus, infant' of OE tim shows its connection with Goth. kilpei, as OED states, child is peculiar to English. It is "[n]ot found elsewhere. In the other WGer. langs its place is taken by kind" (s.v. child). The actual development route and the immediate source of OE cild have not yet been established. A direct semantic change from 'womb' to 'unborn child', although the two notions are metonymically connected, is questionable, (1) so we shall try a new tack.

The IE root *kwel- expanded with *-d occurs also in Slavic languages. Thus, according to SJP and PSR: Pol. czeladz 1. 'servants' 2. (dated) 'journeymen'; biala czeladz 'maid-servants'; czeladnik 1. 'journeyman' 2. (dated) 'servant', czeladzin (dated) 'inmate; servant'; Kashubian (a remnant of Polabian, now a Polish dialect) has cieladnik, cieladnica, cieladnicka, cielo[??] as variants of the same general meaning (SOB). Slovincian (an extinct variant of Kashubian) had cieladnik 'servant' (LOR) and Russ. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('young inmates' dated usage). In Czech celed'a means 'young servant; journeyman' and celed' is 'country servants' or (now obsolete) 'generation, lineage' (CSR). Upper Lusatian has celedz and Lower Lusatian celaz 'servants' (VASM s.v. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In Lithuanian, a Baltic language, the corresponding noun keltis (or kiltis) denotes generation. It is obvious that formal and semantic closeness to OE cild are greater with the Slavic lexemes than with the Germanic ones mentioned above. (2)

Curiously enough, even Serbian, which is a South Slavic language, bears a great, if not a most relevant, similarity to child both in its current meaning 'offspring' and its obsolete meaning 'young male servant, lad in service' (noted in ME for the first time in 1382, to become obsolete by the beginning of the 17th century). In this language [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (celjade) means 'human creature' (usually 'young'), while the collective [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (celjad) shares the meaning 'house servants, inmates' or 'family' with the corresponding nouns in West Slavic languages.

The suffix -jadb had the meaning of collectiveness couched in the form of grammatical singular, which may have influenced the morphological behaviour of the OE noun cild. Namely, as every student of the English language history knows, cild referred to both one and more than one child. (3)

In conclusion, we may surmise a direct influence of *cel'ad' meaning 'young human(s)' in one/some of old West Slavic dialects, on Anglo-Saxon cild at the time when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were still on the continent, bordering with the Slavs, before their migration to the British Isles. …

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