There are large numbers of words in European languages for which the ultimate origin is uncertain. One such word is the English word ‘hand’.
In the sense of the body part which in English is known as the ‘hand’, bothWiktionaryandOnline Etymology Dictionaryboth agree that it is derived from a hypothetical Proto-Germanic *handuz, but that ultimately it is “of uncertain origin”.
*handuz – (Proto-Germanic)
hand – (Old English, Middle English, English)
hant – (Old Dutch)
hand – (Dutch)
hand – (Old Frisian)
hân – (West Frisian)
hant – (Old High German)
hand – (German)
hand – (Old Saxon)
hǫnd – (Old Norse)
haand – (Old Danish)
hånd – (Danish)
hand – (Swedish)
hånd – (Norwegian Bokmål)
hand – (Norwegian Nynorsk)
hond – (Faroese)
hönd – (Icelandic)
Given that we cannot find any obvious similar words in other Indo-European languages outside of the Germanic family, and Germanic is probably less than 3,000 years old, can any similar words be found in non-Indo-European languages which might be a potential original source for the word? (Assuming that it didn’t spontaneously appear out of nowhere in early Proto-Germanic).
Some scholars have suggested that fossilised within Indo-European languages such as Germanic there survives a non-Indo-European substrate (and they offer some evidence to support their assertion).
One such scholar is Theo Vennemann. He claims that there is a Semitic substrate within Celtic and Germanic, for a number of different reasons (although his claims have been heavily criticised).
Is there a similar word to ‘hand’ in any of the surviving or extinct Semitic languages? I couldn’t find one. What about in any other languages outside of Indo-European and Semitic? Again, I couldn’t find one.
However, let’s return to Semitic. Semitic is just one language group within a very broad family, the Afro-Asiatic group. The age of Proto-Afro-Asiatic is considerably greater than Proto-Germanic or even Proto-Indo European, and isestimated on the basis of glottochronology by Diakonoff (a leading scholar on Afro-Asiatic) at 11,500 YBP (years-before-present). Diakonoff believes that one of the earliest branches of Afro-Asiatic was Chadic.
When I looked at other Afro-Asiatic languages outside of Semitic, I found a word for ‘hand’ in Hausa (a major language from the Chadic group spoken in several countries but particularly in Northern Nigeria and Niger) which was remarkably similar:-
‘hánnúu‘ [which means both ‘hand’ and ‘arm’].
[The Chadic languages besides Hausa (which has 24 million speakers) are woefully under-studied, and I struggled to find information on these].
So is this word ‘hánnúu’ in Hausa, meaning ‘hand’, simply a derivation of an English loanword? I went toThe World Loanword Database (WOLD)to have a look. Ari Awagana and H. Ekkehard Wolff, together with Doris Löhr, have meticulously analysed 1452 words from the Hausa language, and have identified potential loanwords totalling 24% of the entire dataset, derived from diverse languages such as Arabic, various Berber dialects, French, English, Kanuri, Tubu, Songhay, Nilo-Saharan, Mande languages, Yoruba, Fulani, and others. They do not consider ‘hánnúu’ to be a loanword into Hausa.
In my view, ‘hand’ in Germanic languages and ‘hánnúu’ [meaning ‘hand’] in Hausa/Chadic look too similar to not be related. Serious scholars don’t consider ‘hánnúu’ to be a loanword in Hausa [which is likely to be true, given that it means both ‘hand’ AND ‘arm’ in Hausa, but only ‘hand’ in Germanic].
Proto-Chadic is estimated to be 3 – 4 times older than Proto-Germanic. I suspect that the resemblance is NOT a coincidence, and that the Germanic word ‘hand’ might well have originated in Chadic. If that is so, how did it jump from Northern Nigeria/Niger to Germany without leaving a trace in other Afro-Asiatic or Indo-European languages?
I don’t have a solid answer to this, and more research is required.
However, there are a few points worth considering. The Neolithic Subpluvial, also known as the Holocene Wet Phase, was a period lasting from approximately 7500 years ago to approximately 3000 years ago during which the Sahara Desert was green and inhabited by humans, including early farmers.
When the Sahara dried out, these people would have been forced to either migrate south towards the Sahel, north towards the Mediterranean coast, east towards the River Nile, or west towards the Atlantic coast [or head for the remaining wet areas such as oases, the Niger River, or Lake Chad]. These migrations would have had a genetic, archaeological, and linguistic impact.
Secondly, there is evidence to suggest that there were subsequent prehistoric migrations from north Africa into southern Europe, which would also have had a cultural and genetic impact, however minor [and this in turn would have later had an influence further inland in Europe].
Thirdly, it is known that prior to Romans, Arabs, Phoenicians etc. the main languages spoken in Western North Africa would have been Berber languages. Yet Berber languages do not appear to have had much impact in terms of influence on languages spoken in Southern Europe. I believe that this is because, according to Austrian linguist Hans Mukarovsky, Berber languages only spread to the West of North Africa from approximately 4,000 years ago onwards, and other language groups such as Chadic, Mande, Songhay, etc. might have been spoken much further northwards prior to this [and this might also explain why I am seeing an influence from these languages on Basque and Celtic].
And finally, there are genetic links between Chad and Europe, in particular with Sardinia and Corsica but also with Basques, Southern French, and Southern Iberians [eg. Y-DNA haplogroup R1b R-V88 and haplogroup A, plus HLA haplotype A*30:01-B*18:01-C*05:01-DRB1*03:01-DQB1*02:01). This might be a route via which Chadic languages could have entered Southern Europe in prehistory. It is especially interesting in view of the fact that I am finding that there are many Hausa-like words in the Basque language, and Basques and Sardinians have the highest European frequencies of the Chadic HLA haplotype mentioned above. In addition Sardinians are believed to have spoken a Basque-like, pre-Indo European language prior to the comparatively recent introduction of Latin. Lastly, there is a 115 kilometre-long river in Sardinia called Coghinas, and Kogin is the Hausa word for ‘river’ [although this could of course be purely coincidental].
I plan to do some more research and will follow up this post again hopefully some time in the not too distant future.
Most European languages have a decimal counting system (counting in tens); however a small number of European languages have a vigesimal counting system (counting in twenties).
The main language groups in Europe which retain the vigesimal counting system are Basque and the Brythonic Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish, Breton); while some remnants of the system are also found in French and Danish.
The vigesimal system is much more typical of non-European languages.
Semitic languages of western Asia, eg. Arabic have a decimal counting system. This system has entered northern Africa with the spread of Islam; however the older vigesimal system remains in some Berber languages of north Africa.
The vigesimal counting system is a common feature of many Niger Congo languages of western tropical Africa.
It has been previously suggested that there are a number of morphological similarities shared between certain Niger-Congo languages (Atlantic and Mande groups]; Berber languages in north Africa; the Basque language in south-western Europe; and Celtic languages in the British Isles.
Given the absence of the vigesimal counting system in eastern Europe but its presence in western Europe; and its absence in western Asia but presence in parts of northern and western Africa, maybe these regions share a common origin of the vigesimal system (ie. people crossed the Mediterranean Sea or sailed around the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe in prehistoric times).
Leaving aside genetic and archaeological evidence for prehistoric contacts between Africa and Europe (which is outside the scope of this blog), what linguistic evidence do we have for a common origin of the vigesimal counting system in Africa and Europe?
I believe that I have found evidence for this, and this evidence is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Please see below:-
The Word “Twenty” in Different Languages:-
Bambara [Mali, W Africa]: “mùɡan“
Jula [Burkina Faso & Côte d’Ivoire, W Africa]: “mugan“
Kakabe [Guinea, W Africa]: “múɡan“
Kuranko [Sierra Leone & Guinea, W Africa]: “mogan“
Yalunka [Guinea, W Africa]: “mɔ̀kɔ̀ŋɛ́“
Jowulu (Jo) [Mali, W Africa]: “kɔ̃ne“
**Yoruba [Nigeria, W Africa]: “ogún“**
**Welsh [Wales, UK]: “ugain“**
North Riding Sheep-Scoring Numbers [Yorkshire, NE England]: “gun–a-gun“
Cornish [Cornwall, SW England]:“ugens“
Breton [Brittany, NW France]: “ugent“
Gaulish [extinct – France etc.]: “uoconti“
Tiv [Nigeria, W Africa]: “ikundu“
**Latin [Latium, West Central Italy]: “viginti“**
**Kanuri [Niger/Nigeria, W Africa]:”fíyìndì“**
Maasina Fulfulde [Mali & Ghana, W Africa]: “no:gay“
Western Niger Fulfulde [Niger, W Africa]: “noogaj“
Pular [Guinea, Senegal, & Mali, W Africa]: “noogaj“
**Edo [Nigeria, W Africa]: “ùɡié“**
**Basque [Basque Country, N Spain & SW France]:“hogei“**
In my opinion the shared origin of the vigesimal counting system between western Africa and western Europe can’t be denied, and is reflected in very similar words for “twenty” shared between languages in these regions which couldn’t easily be explained by chance alone. My theory is that vigesimal counting systems and the very similar words for “twenty” might have spread from northern/western Africa into southern/western Europe with pastoralism [sheep/goat/cattle-rearing] during the Holocene epoch around 6,000 – 8,000 years ago. Further research is required.