The other day while mowing the lawn I had an idea for something I wanted to put into a story. For whatever reason, I was stuck on this thought that words are one of the few direct legacies and connections we have to previous generations of people. If a word exists, it does so because someone created it and described what it meant to others. That word makes its way around in any language so long as it gets used, and it can even change meaning. Or, it could end up being so relevant to a language that it survives as a root in any subsequent branches of the language.
Changing gears slightly, some languages don’t have words for certain things. An isolated language on an island might have words for fish, water, and beaches. They might not have words for mountain, continent, and snow. What people don’t experience, they don’t need a word for.
On a practical level, this means that words which persist over time are ones that are very common to the human condition. Words like “father” and “mother” are pretty old in English. Take their roots and cognates into account, and you could trace what they’re derived from back to Indo-European languages. Thus, etymologists were able to find out that Sanskrit (a language in ancient India) is related to English and Latin.
Moreover, the existence of any word also ought to have some profound significance. Why are there many different words for making a journey? Why do we have so many ways to express sadness? What does it say about a culture that knows what “genocide” is?
I got into all of this because I’m trying to imagine a world hundreds of light years away thousands of years into the future. If interstellar travel is as laborious as we might think, traveling to a different sun is dangerous. Communities are going to get more isolated than we have on our one planet. The biggest gift we’ll ever give them is our vocabulary. They will speak with the ideas of thousands of generations before them.
And they probably won’t care.
My hope is that if they do have access to ancient writing, they won’t be familiar with the awful words in our vocabulary. It would be a good thing when words like “death,” “murder,” “agony,” and “treacherous” require a bunch of research to understand, or people might shudder in contemplation at what life must have been like. At the least, I hope that people won’t have to create new words which make our current understanding of misery pale in comparison.
Now when I see an unfamiliar word, I wonder if anyone in years past has ever wondered the same thing. I don’t know if they’d like the world as it exists. Maybe some of it might impress them, and some of it might terrify them. Regardless, I’m grateful for some of the words that have been handed down from ages past. I’d like to add meaning and understanding to them, and pass them on to others in better condition than when I found them.