All You Ever Wanted to Know About Ursprache (but were afraid to ask)
OK, I've resisted for over 24 hours, but am now giving in. Please understand I majored in German, I studied there two years and I simply love the study of language. I know I'm weird, but I can curl up with a cup of tea and a good dictionary and be content for hours. Give me an etymological dictionary and, well, you will have lost me for some time. My junior year, I spent hours upon hours researching the history of the word "snide" because my German professor thought it odd that the word "schneiden" (to cut) did not survive in any form in English. I thought just maybe it did...

So when Ursprache became the winning word for the spelling bee...well, how could I not get excited about it? A nice German word on my favorite subject. From Wordsmyth:


Return to top of entryPart of Speech
View pronunciation guide Pronunciation
uhr spra kE
ur shpra khE

Definition1.(German) the parent form of a language that has been constructed from hypotheses based on analysis of later forms for which there is evidence.

So here is my attempt at helping this vitally important word stick in your mind. Proper English (as opposed to a borrowed word) for this would be protolanguage. How does this work? Let me give you an example. Below is a list of English words and their German cognates. These words have common ancestry. Can you see what shifts are taking place?




Each of these words have a common ancestor whose sounds have shifted over time. The, for example, comes from an old word for the, thiu. These sound shifts follow their own rules, converting an entire class of words at a time. They also occur over geographic regions. Thus you will only see the "pf" in southern German dialects, while the northern dialects have only "p." With this information alone, you should be able to tell where English originated...northern Germany. By studying how known languges have changed over time, linguists can hypothesize what previous languages may have looked like.

What they have largely reconstructed based on this model is called Indo-European and it is the common ancestor to all the European languages, slavic languages, Farsi and the Indian languages.

The most fascinating thing I find in this research is that as we go back in time, language gets more complex. English used to have a rich case system. Can you believe we conjugated our nouns? Like Latin? Of course, if you go back far enough, Latin is related to English as well. We also had more varied and more complex sounds. That igh occuring in so many words used to be pronounced. As was the b at the end of words such as comb and lamb. German, which updates its spelling more often than English, has dropped the archaic "b" but continues to double the end letter (Kamm, Lamm(e)). There also was a curious sound that still exists in some dialects in England that I cannot hope to recreate. But it is represented in the names Floyd and Lloyd. Did you know those are actually the same name? Just two different representations of the same sound that people outside the dialect cannot say or spell.

Research also places the beginnings of this language in the Middle East only a few thousand years ago. Imagine that.

Oh, and about the word "snide." It is certainly a Germanic word, but it does not appear to have stayed with English via the Angles and the Saxons and their trip from Germany to England. It has an unclear history, but appears to have been reintroduced to the languge via the Vikings who harrassed England's northern shores. They used a verb snidera to describe the biting cold of the north wind. It appears that English adopted this, also to describe the wind initially. Eventually, it came to describe certain remarks and manners of expression.

If you are as interested in this as I am, here are some links with some interesting information:
For a brief history of the English language, complete with graphic:
For a generic overview of the Indo-European family tree:
For a more detailed overview:
You can also move your mouse over the highlighted ones and get a bit more info.
This is somewhat technical, but gives some insight as to how this is all figured
out in the first place.
It is written in response to a letter published in Nature that attempted to push back
the dates of the language splits and move their origins further East:
Another detailed map of the Indo-European family tree.
You can click on the languages below the graphic to see where each language was spoken.

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