Word Bites — From Ross to Pferd

There are odd etymologies in various languages, and here, I want to present one of them. One that is rather commonly used, identified, and known by all. That is the word “horse”. Understandably, given that English is a Germanic language, we would expect to see a rather similar sounding translation for this word. Right?

Well, you would be around half-right. While some languages like German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Flemish use Pferd, paard, perd, and paard respectively, these translations would have been more similar to the horse we say today, if we were a few centuries back.

Back in the Old High German days, speakers used to say ros or hros to refer to the horse. A Proto-West Germanic root suggested the root word *hross, the sounds of which are still generally retained in present-day English. But somewhere along the way, something must have happened to change its West-Germanic counterparts to the paard and Pferd we see nowadays.

You see, Latin was the main language from which many words were loaned, remnants of which that can still be seen today. From Fenster (window, from Latin fenestra) to Kaiser (emperor, from Latin Caesar, and yes, that is arguably the correct was to pronounce Caesar), there are many notable examples of such words. But, the Latin word for horse is equus (or eqvvs, if not for the invention of the letter ‘u’), so there is no way Pferd and paard would have been borrowed from Latin, right?

The short answer is, yes, there was a way. The Gallo-Latin word, that is, the variant of Latin spoken in what is now France, was veredus, which carried the meaning of a packhorse, or horses commonly used to transport and deliver goods. While technically a Latin word, this was in itself loaned from the Gallic language, a Celtic language. When people had spare horses to make such deliveries, these horses were called paraveredus, using the prefix of Greek origin, para- (meaning alongside). This was the root word from which Pferd, paard, and perd derived from.

Languages evolve, and so did the word paraveredus. Words like parafred, pherfrit, and pherit were used over the 9th to 13th centuries, possibly coexisting with the Germanic root hros or ros as well. However, it was extremely likely that pherit increasingly dominated in usage, replacing hros over time, especially in Dutch, Flemish, and High German. The High German consonant shift resulted in the changing of the ‘p’ sound to a ‘pf’ sound, giving the Pferd we see in German today.

The German we speak today is commonly referred to as High German, but the original hros and ros still survive to this day. Retaining its phonetic qualities, this word has become Ross, and is still a word used alongside Pferd in the German spoken in Southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, but in the northern parts of Germany, Ross has been left behind, interpreted as a poetic, or archaic remnant of linguistic history.

And also, if your family name is Ross, like Bob Ross, this is probably where your family name might have come from, although there is also a Scottish root that means ‘headland’. So there we have it. A German word commonly spoken today, deriving from a Latin word which was a combination of a Gallic noun, and a Greek prefix, then taking over the original Germanic root word in usage to reach its current status. This is the beauty of etymology I guess.

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