The Language Room, Translation & Interpretation, Edinburgh, Scotland, London, UK

All that glitters may be gold!

Happy New Year to everyone, and as we emerge from the season of sparkly, twinkly fun, let’s have a look at how words can give impressions beyond their bare meanings and look at all that glitters.

The New Year is often welcomed in with fireworks, family and friends, all surrounded by the glittering decorations of celebration. But there’s something about ‘glittering’ that means more than just shiny. Looking around at related words in English, we can pick out glittering, glistening, gleaming, glinting, glowing and glimmering. They all start with those same two letters, and all have that special shining quality. There doesn’t seem to be anything inherent about the sound ‘gl’ that makes us think of light and brightness – plenty of words start with the same two letters and have completely unrelated meanings, such as gluttony, glue and glory. But there’s something about this group of words that seems so much more than just coincidence.

So what is the link in all that glitters may be gold?

Etymologically, these words have a common ancestor. We can trace them all back to Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, which meant ‘to shine’. The same root has lent its form to words for yellow throughout the Indo-European family, twisting and transforming into ‘yellow’, ‘gold’ and even ‘jaundice’ in English alone.

Today, though, most of us are unaware of the historical relationships between these words. Indeed, if we had to remember the history of each word as we used it, our minds would surely be too overwhelmed to form any coherent sentences at all. Instead, we group these words together as related, both in form and in meaning. We exploit their similarities in poetry and prose, highlighting the shine of a description simply by using these words.

In linguistics, the ‘gl-’ sound can be referred to as a phonaestheme – a pairing of meaning and form that is below the word level but does not meet the criteria for a morpheme (e.g. ‘-ing’, ‘-ness’, etc.). This phenomenon is not onomatopoeic, as the idea of shininess does not have a sound that can be reflected in language. It does, however, add to the magic of language, as the grouping bring an extra dimension to meaning, giving it a phonetic quality.

And so, this New Year has glowed for me so far and I hope your 2020 will glisten and gleam from start to finish! To help it glitter, check out some more language blogs here!

Image courtesy of Designecologist