Thursday, September 8, 2011
Twenty years ago I stumbled onto a book by Robert Claiborne called The Roots of English. It's basically an etymological dictionary, but as Claiborne states, "It's in no sense a comprehensive dictionary of Indo-European roots but rather on of Indo-European roots in English. And only some of those . . . about a third. In partial compensation, I've added a modest selection of non-Indo-European words or roots that have contributed to our everyday vocabulary."
The Roots of English is fascinating to read. Most entries have interesting little stories about these 'proto-words,' and Claiborne makes interesting links from one word to another. I learned about the word "arkhein," from this book:
[Greek ARKHEIN, to begin, > take the lead, which > rule (rulers - sometimes - take the lead, though not always in the right direction). The "begin" sense > ANCIENT ("from the beginning"), ARCHAEOLOGY (the study of ancient things), and the ARCHIVES where ancient documents are stored, frequently enshrining ARCHAIC laws. The "rule" sense produced the MONARCHY ruled by one person and the ARCHITECT who is the "ruler" of construction - a master builder.]
Of course, arkhein also reminded me of a combination of arcane and Arkham as well, so it has been a favorite word of mine for two decades.
What I found particularly useful was that I could take the root words from the book and turn them into good words for role playing and story creation. Fantasy words made with real English root words seem to strike a chord with the listener much better than a word formed out of gobbledygook. There is even an index in the back of the book that links English to the root word, making word creation much easier.
The Roots of English is a great resource for DMs and word-o-philes and I highly recommend it.
Oh, and as a little side note, Robert Claiborne was a fascinating guy himself. He was a folk singer who toured with Woody Guthrie, a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee, an editor at Scientific American and various Time-Life science books, and wrote on subject such as medicine, astronomy, climate-anthropology, marine biology, and linguistics. He was quite a fascinating guy.
So go grab a dictionary, a comfy patch of rug, a quiet afternoon, and a glass of Hi-C and go invent a new language or two. :)