The Language Buff’s Word of the Day: Sky

Clouds in the Sky

The word “sky” is surprisingly not one of the oldest words in the English language. While primitive man has always looked upwards to the sky in awe, considering it as the abode of the gods, speakers of Old English actually borrowed this word from the Scandinavians. The Old Norse word “ský”, meaning “cloud” (as it still does in Danish and Norwegian) was borrowed into English and became the word everyday for “sky”. Why would Anglo-Saxons borrow a word as quintessential as “sky” from a neighboring language?

IMG_1558To answer this question, we have to look at the original Old English word for “sky” which is, surprise, surprise “heofon”. Yes, as you may have correctly guessed, this is the ancestor of the word “heaven” and is thus related to the German and Dutch words for “sky”; “Himmel” and “hemel” respectively. What happened was a semantic shift where the original word (“heaven”) developed a specialised meaning and the semantic vacuum was replaced by a word with a related meaning borrowed from another language.

Blue clouds in the sky above Arcachon, Bordeaux, France

In other words, what really happened was that, about a thousand years ago in Anglo-Saxon lands, the word “heofon” began to mean “the place where God and the angels dwell”, hence it’s modern descendant being “heaven”. The normal word for “sky” was replaced by a word meaning “cloud” borrowed from Old Norse.

Cloudy sky in Paris

No language or culture is an island. All languages influence and are in turn influenced by other languages; words are passed from one language to another, like brilliant beads of pure sound being transformed, transmutated, remoulded and finally, threaded to create the intricate linguistic garlands that we use to express ourselves.

Photos by the author: TapestriesofWovenSound


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