What? Is There Something in the Water?

On Language

By Philologos

Published December 15, 2010, issue of December 24, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Henry Lerner writes from Edison, N.J.:

“I was recently struck by the following, which I find perplexing. It seems that in many languages, the word for ‘water’ contains in it the word for ‘what.’ Besides English ‘water’ and ‘what,’ for example, we have German wasser and was, Latin aqua and qua, Hebrew mayim and ma, and so on. Is there some hidden connection behind these languages, or are we looking at a widespread anomaly in language itself?”

We Need It To Live: The beauty and wonder of water makes us question its nature. Diagram : Patrick-Emil Zörner from Wikimedia Commons
Noodlesnacks.com, Wiki-Commons
We Need It To Live: The beauty and wonder of water makes us question its nature. Diagram : Patrick-Emil Zörner from Wikimedia Commons

Although Mr. Lerner’s question is not, on the face of it, unreasonable, it fails to take into account, like many of the queries that readers send me about intriguing resemblances between words, the processes by which languages grow and change. One has to remember, after all, that most words in any language are the result of thousands of years of development, and that just as two words that don’t look or sound at all alike may turn out, if we go far back enough in time, to have a common ancestor, so two other words that do appear similar may be unconnected. One has to know something about a word’s history before drawing conclusions about its relationship to other words.

Take the English words “water” and “what.” English belongs to the Germanic family of languages, other members of which have close cognates of “water” and “what”: for example, Swedish vatten and hvad, Dutch water and wat (the Dutch “w,” like the German one, is pronounced “v”), etc. — all deriving from an ancient parent tongue known to linguists as proto-Germanic. Although there are no actual examples of proto-Germanic, it is possible to reconstruct its vocabulary by looking at such cognates and, with the help of known rules of phonetic change, and deduce the prehistoric word from which they must have descended. In the case of “water,” this is conjectured to have been something like wedor. In the case of “what,” it was probably something like khwat. Wedor and khwat certainly don’t look as similar as do “water” and “what.”

But we have to go back even further than that. The Germanic family of languages belongs to a larger family called Indo-European, in which one finds such seemingly diverse tongues as Russian and its Slavic cousins, Lithuanian, Gaelic, Welsh and Latin; its Romance descendants, Greek, Albanian, Kurdish, Persian, Pashto, Urdu; the many Sanskrit-derived languages of northern India, such as Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujerati and Bengali, and a variety of extinct languages, like Hittite and Tocharian. Moreover, just as linguists can re-create, with some degree of accuracy, proto-Germanic, they also can re-create proto-Indo-European.

When this is done for “water,” taking into account such words for it as Russian voda, Greek hydor (from which English gets “hydrant” and “hydraulic”), Sanskrit udan and Latin unda (which came to mean “wave,” as in our “undulate”), we get a hypothetical wodr. (Latin aqua comes from another root entirely.) And when we do the same for “what,” we get kwos. Kwos accounts for Latin interrogative pronouns, like qua, quis and quid, as well as for “what” words, like Sanskrit kas and Hittite kwis. The “wh-“ of such English interrogative pronouns as “where,” “when,” “who,” “why” and “which” also goes back to the same proto-Indo-European kw-.

It was a process of slow convergence, then, that caused wodr and kwos to end up as “water” and “what,” or as Wasser and was, after many thousands of years of phonetic change. (Proto-Indo-European probably began to divide into different daughter languages in about 4000 B.C.E.). Moreover, even in English, in which “wh-” was once pronounced (as it still is, by the rare speaker) with an expulsion of air through pursed lips by inflated cheeks, “water” and “wha” did not always share the same initial consonant. The resemblance between them turns out to be purely coincidental.

The same holds true for Hebrew mayim and ma. These words have cognates in other Semitic languages that show that they, too, were originally unrelated. The proto-Semitic word for “what” must have had an “n” in it, since “what” in ancient Akkadian is minu, and in ancient Ugaritic, a northwest Semitic language even closer to Hebrew, minuma. Mayim, on the other hand, is a Hebrew plural form of a word that appears in the singular in other Semitic languages as ma or maya (Arabic), mu (Akkadian) or may (Ge’ez, the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia), yielding conjectured proto-Semitic maw or moy.

So much for any supposed linguistic link between whatness and wateriness. Never underestimate the power of coincidence. And on the other hand, who but a trained Indo-European linguist would ever guess that Lithuanian vanduo and Albanian ujë, each of which means “water,” too, have a common ancestor in proto-Indo-European wodr, or that Welsh beth and Persian ché, both meaning “what,” are distant cousins descending from kwos? Appearances can be deceiving in many things, but never more so than when it comes to etymologies. The connections between words often aren’t what they seem to be.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.