Dear Language Nerd,
Today, while making dinner, the topic was raised that the word for cheese in German and Spanish both sound very similar; which is an odd thing for a germanic language and a latin language to share in common. What I found even more odd is that english; which is more or less and germanic/latin hybrid language, calls cheese something that sounds fairly different from queso (Spanish) and Käse (German).
Basically I have two main questions: firstly why does cheese sound so similar in Spanish and German? Is it that cheese itself was introduces to the German and the Spanish by a third party that referred to it as something similar to Käse and queso?
Secondly, why does cheese sound so different in English? Does it have something to do with a consonant shift in the English language, or is there a different reason?
Side note: after a little research I found that cheese is referred to as something that is completely different in French (fromage).
These are all just hypotheses that I scrambled together in a few minutes biased on my very limited experience.
A Cheese Connoisseur
Your scrambled hypotheses are right on target. Have you considered taking up historical linguistics?
German Käse and Spanish queso are cognates. They come from the same word, Latin caseus. The Irish, Italian, Dutch, and Welsh words for “cheese” all trace back to this word too.
Spanish comes directly from Latin, so the word origin is no surprise there. But German, as you note, had a different history. Germanic (meaning the language that would eventually split up and morph into German, and English, and Dutch, and quite a few others) was spoken in northern Europe, while Latin was in the south.
But here’s the thing: the Romans got around. Helluva empire, those guys. And because they were always wandering around with the stabbing and the road-making, Latin words made their way into languages aplenty.
The Germanic tribes nabbed caseus, and then they did what ancient tribes do, which is split up and look for new places. Some hung out in Germany, and while the spelling changed, caseus to Käse isn’t too hard to mark a path for – remember that Latin “c” sounds like “k.” Some other old tribey dudes, though, went and landed themselves on a rock out in the North Sea, and while they were stuck out there, they added some new twists to their language. At some point, for example, they swapped out “k” sounds in certain positions for the clearly preferable “ch.” They shortened it to one syllable, and once you’ve done that, why wouldn’t you switch that final “s” for a “z”?
This sort of step by step, thousands-o’-years process – tweak the nasals here, reupholster the plosives there, check up on those back vowels now and again – is what turns one language into many. And it doesn’t take too long to get incomprehensible, since each separate group is dropping in its own modifications. Language A velarizes its nasals, Language B drops schwas in unstressed syllables, Language C monopthongizes [ai] to [a:], and soon enough, inch by inch, everybody’s moved miles away from the Language X that they once existed as together in harmony.
In fact, Latin and Germanic went through the same process further back in time. They both came from proto-Indo-European (PIE), a language we have no written record of, but which we reconstruct by unravelling these changes backwards. So if Spanish is a daughter language of Latin, and German is a daughter language of Germanic, and those both came from PIE, then German and Spanish are rather like a couple-times-removed cousins. They have a few similar features, but really, it’ll be alright if they get married, is what I’m trying to say.
And, of course, at every step in this sound-changing journey, the older generation becomes super pissed and figures that the change in pronunciation is a sign of the utter ineptitude of the coming generation. It’s the Circle of Life.
French! Almost forgot!
French is weird, but it comes by it naturally. See, everybody else went with, essentially, “fermented stuff” for cheese. But there were variations running around, especially as cheese was improved away from its early roots of “chunks left over in a bag of old milk.” Part of the innovation was pressing the cheese into shapes, squishing the goop out. So we get phrases like (Medieval) Latin casei forma, “cheese in a shape or form.” French focused on the second part of this little party, and a thousand years later, we’ve got an outlier in our European cheese words.
Ok. As you were.
The Language Nerd
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Cheese (and fromage) etymology from etymonline. Here’s an article on Latin influence on German from Ultralingua, and the University of Texas has a nice, readable series following the various children of PIE as they are born, get jobs, age, and die. And if I’ve overexposed you to the “language is a human family” metaphor, check out this lovely version of “language is a tree” (via mentalfloss).