Thursday, October 21, 2010

What in the World is Erse?

Yesterday's New York Times crossword puzzle asked for a 4-letter "European tongue". Based on other words around it, my husband and I came up with E_SE. None of the lesser-known European languages we could think of -- Sami in Scandinavia, Romani and Sinti in Eastern Europe, Basque in Spain, Gaelic in Ireland, Alsatian in France, Romansch in Switzerland -- would fit that pattern. It turns out (we had to wait for the solution in today's paper) that it's Erse. So what language is that and who speaks it?

Well, googling "Erse" gets you a manufacturer of components for audio and video equipment in the top spot, but then a couple of definitions from Wikipedia and several dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster. According to them, it is an alternate word for Gaelic, based on the Middle English word for Irish, Erisch.

Aha, not a language/people I had never heard of. So what would other languages be called in Middle English? Again, enter the web. There is an online Middle English dictionary housed at the University of Michigan. So German was called Alemaine back then (presumably related to the French Allemand). Next question then: how did we get German from Alemaine?

Enter the Online Etymology Dictionary. Apparently, German doesn't come from the Middle English Alemaine, but rather is based on the Latin germanus. Caesar used the plural, germani, to designate tribes in northeastern Gaul, possibly based on the name of one of those tribes. There is also a Celtic word "garim" meaning to shout and speculation is that germanus may be derived from that. Anybody who has ever been to an Oktoberfest can attest to the noisy character of that occasion -- although that probably holds true for any celebration largely based on an alcoholic beverage, no matter the culture.

What one doesn't learn when doing crossword puzzles! They do help expand one's vocabulary, even if this particular word will likely be of little use. A large vocabulary helps anyone working with language -- writer, editor, translator. So solving crossword puzzles (in both source and target languages) is a useful pastime for a translator. To that end, I'll buy a couple of crossword puzzle books when I go to Austria late next week.

If this piqued your crossword interests, here are a couple of sites that offer free online crosswords:

In English:

In German:

Happy puzzling!


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