The Adventures of Proto-Indo-European *weiḱ-
What links sandwiches to Vikings, and York to Czech villages? Why, etymology of course!
One reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word has enjoyed enormous success in its subsequent, post-PIE life, in part thanks to its useful meaning, in part to the prestige of the languages that inherited it. This word is *weiḱ– and we believe its original meaning was ‘village’ or ‘settlement’, perhaps referring to both the physical place and to the group of people thereby defined.
We have been able to confidently reconstruct this prehistoric word, because its descendants are so numerous, being found in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, and across the Germanic (including English) and Slavic language families.
Let’s start with Latin, as, thanks to its high status in Europe, Latin not only made good use of the word, but also passed it on to many other languages.
PIE *weiḱ– became Latin vīcus, which the Romans used to refer to villages or parts of larger settlements. Rome itself was divided into vīcī, and, wherever the Roman army built its forts, a civilian vīcus would spring up; many of these originally ad hoc settlements developed into established, prosperous towns in their own right.
It is from vīcus that English gets vicinity, but also village, which comes, via French, from Latin vīlla ‘estate, country house’, itself a diminutive of vīcus or one of its ancestral forms. Someone who worked on such a vīlla was a vīllānus, from which English takes villein and also, through the usual demonisation of the working class, villain.
However, thanks to its versatility and association with the military, vīcus also passed into the Germanic languages to the north, which is where our story continues.
The descendants of vīcus pop up across the modern Germanic languages, sometimes as stand-alone words, sometimes as components of a larger word, such as in place names. The word travelled to Britain as Old English wīc ‘settlement, village’ (but also ‘bay’), which we still see in places like Norwich, Gatwick and Sandwich, the third of which, apparently thanks to an earl’s gambling habits, has become an internationally popular dish.
Meanwhile, wijk is a common element in Dutch place names, while in Scandinavia we find Norwegian vik, Swedish vik and Danish vig, as well as vík in Icelandic, which forms the final component of its capital, Reykjavík. However, in these North Germanic languages, the ‘settlement’ meaning of the Latin original is lost, since the words have all come to mean ‘bay’ or ‘inlet’. This word is one of the possible origins of the term Viking, which English borrowed from Old Norse víkingr, perhaps literally ‘a bay person’ or ‘someone from the fjords’. The similarity of Old Norse vík to its Old English cousin wīc allowed for an easy change to an already famous city’s name; when the Danes took over, Old English Eoforwīċ ‘boar settlement’ became the comfortably Norse Jórvík (literally ‘boar creek’), which today survives in the great city of York and its younger American derivative.
One more ancient language that has contributed to English’s growing list of *weiḱ– descendants is Greek, which inherited the PIE original as woikos. The dialects of Ancient Greek later lost the sound /w/, resulting in classical oikos. This was an important term in ancient Hellenic society, used for the both the physical building of a house and for all who lived within it.
The Greeks’ word for the management of a household was oikonomíā, which, with a few shifts in spelling and meaning, comes down us as English economy and economics. A later descendant of oikos, coined in the nineteenth century by a German zoologist, is ecology, the study (logos) of living things and their environment – a word which, along with its clipped form eco-, is of global importance today.
Other descendants of oikos are not quite so similar to their ancestor. For example, Greek built a noun for ‘administration’ and ‘province’ around oikos – namely, a dioikesis. The Roman Empire’s official, secular use of the word cemented its prestige, which led to its adoption by Christian authorities and its appearance as English diocese. Furthermore, having prefixed oikos with para- ‘beside’, the word paroikia originally meant ‘a stay abroad, away from home’, but later came to refer to something similar to dioikesis. This went through Latin and the etymological mangle of Old French, and gave English parish.
Slavic, Sanskrit and beyond
I could go on. No, I really could – Proto-Indo-European *weiḱ– has been so prolific that I have no doubt that, at the time of publishing, I will have missed some of its intriguing English descendants. One further group of descendants that I would like to mention is in Slavic – not connected to English, but close to my heart.
The Slavic family, which today includes Russian, Polish, Czech and Bulgarian, descend from a single common ancestor that we call Proto-Slavic. Further back in time, before this stage of unified Slavic, what would become Proto-Slavic underwent satemisation, a sound change through which original *ḱ and *ǵ sounds became *s and *z. This affected *weiḱ-, and consequently we find the word across the Slavic languages, with its final consonant changed but the original meaning largely untouched. For example, in Czech, the word for ‘village’ is either ves or vesnice (the latter derived from the former, and both indeed related to their English translation), while a village green or central square is a náves.
Lastly, we should turn our attention away from Europe, because we can also find descendants of *weiḱ– in Sanskrit. Like Slavic languages, Sanskrit shows the results of satemisation, and in that ancient language you might translate ‘house’ or ‘people’ as víś.
This is an impressive number of etymological offspring for one Proto-Indo-European word, and it is moreover interesting that so many have converged and joined the English lexicon. Then again, how could *weiḱ– not be successful, when its meaning is so important for human life? What would be without settlements and communities, let along words to describe them? Regardless of geography, *weiḱ– has continued to be needed by speakers across the Indo-European family. It truly is an ecumenical word.