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Many etymologies in dictionaries say that some word is “akin to” a word in some other language. For example, here is part of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary entry for salt:

Main Entry: 1salt

Etymology: Middle English, from Old English sealt; akin to Old High German salz salt, Lithuanian saldus sweet, Latin sal salt, Greek hals salt, sea

It says that salt is “akin to” words in Old High German, Lithuanian, Latin, and Greek. What does that mean? Does it mean that the word is borrowed from those languages? How could a word be borrowed from more than one language?

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I’ve added a bounty to this question because none of the answers so far is really right. The right answer will address types of relationships between languages and the difference between borrowing and inheriting words. –  nohat Aug 28 '10 at 19:03
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@cindi is exactly right: words that are akin share genetic material; i.e. they derive from the same root in a common ancestor language. –  nohat Sep 30 '10 at 21:42
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7 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

First, a brief lesson in historical linguistics. Language families arose at some point in the past from what linguists call proto-languages, which is a term that refers to a language that is reconstructed rather than one that is attested. There is debate over whether language families all derive back to a single proto-language or if several proto-languages developed independently. In either case, as the group forming the speakers of a proto-language grows over time, it eventually splits into two or more separate groups whose language started out the same and then over time became mutually unintelligible. Those two “child” languages are related in the family tree of languages. The child languages can then grow and split as well. In the history of English, there have been several splits, but two are significant: first, the proto-Indo-European language split into various languages forming the subfamilies of Indo-European, such as the Germanic languages (proto-Germanic) and the Romance languages (Latin). The Germanic languages also split, eventually resulting in English being a separate language from the other Germanic languages, such as German, Swedish, and Dutch.

A word becomes part of a language in two ways: (1) it inherits them from ancestor languages; (2) they borrow them from contemporary foreign languages. For example, the English word brother derives in a direct lineage back through proto-Germanic to the proto-Indo-European root *bʰréh₂tēr. This is an inherited word. The other way a word enters a language is to be borrowed from a contemporary foreign language. This is like the English word croissant which was borrowed from the French word croissant. That is, when the word croissant became a part of English, it was copied from people who were speaking a foreign language—French. Even though French and English are related—both being Indo-European languages—the word croissant was borrowed from French because the word entered English after French speakers and English speakers split apart long enough for their languages to be not mutually intelligible.

Now, French also has a word for brother that derives from the proto-Indo-European root *bʰréh₂tēr: that French word is frère. This is where the word akin comes in. The English word brother is akin to the French word frère because both languages inherited those words from their ancestor languages, and they both ultimately derive from the same root in their closest common ancestor language, proto-Indo-European.

So, when a dictionary etymology says “word A in language L1 is akin to word B in language L2”, that means that neither word A nor word B were borrowed into their respective language and both word A and word B derive from the same root word in L1 and L2’s common ancestor language. That is, when Merriam-Webster say about salt that it is “akin to Old High German salz salt, Lithuanian saldus sweet, Latin sal salt, Greek hals salt, sea” they mean that the English word salt and those other words from related languages all come from the same root in their common ancestor language, proto-Indo-European.

A couple of other terms you might find:

  • derivative: a derivative is a word that is derived from a root word. Both brother and frère are derivates of *bʰréh₂tēr.
  • reflex: a reflex is a sound in a descendent language that corresponds to a sound in the ancestor language. For example, the proto-Indo-European sound /bʰ/ has the reflex sound /b/ in English and /f/ in French, which is why the English derivative is brother and the French derivative is frère. Similarly, the proto-Indo-European root *bʰudʰ-no- has derivative bottom in English and fond in French, and *bʰerǵʰ- meaning “fort” has derivatives burg and borough in English and fort in French. (The English word fort was borrowed later from French).
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+1 nice answer :). Is it worth mentioning that the phrase "akin to" (outside of linguistics) simply means "related to"? –  psmears Feb 13 '11 at 18:15
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When they indicate that a word comes from a language, it indicates a direct, known relationship between the two words. When they switch to saying "akin to," the entry indicates that there is likely an indirect relationship between the word in question and the word its akin to.

A quick look up indicates that English originated from a West German dialect, which I'm sure relates to Old High German in some manner. Going to the example in salt, the entry indicates that there is the Old English word and the Old High German word. However, there's at least one language in between those two that the etymology flows through. Since the Old High German is only akin to the Old English, all the ancestor words from the Old High German are also akin to the present-day word.

In short, there's a link in the etymological chain missing. The term "akin to" recognizes that fact.

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just curious, could you post the citation from the quick look up? i wasn't expecting an answer like yours at all but you've piqued my interest –  mfg Aug 31 '10 at 18:16
    
What time frame did this West Germanic dialect coin this word? –  Charlie Sep 1 '10 at 6:50
    
@mfg en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_language @itrekkie I'm not familiar with the timeline over which this evolution of language occurred –  waymost Sep 2 '10 at 0:34
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From the NOAD:

akin /əˈkɪn/
adjective
of similar character: something akin to gratitude overwhelmed her | genius and madness are akin.
• related by blood.
ORIGIN middle 16th century: contracted form of of kin.

In the case of words, it means there is a similarity between the words, or they have a common (or shared) root.

Reading what the NOAD says about salt, I find:

ORIGIN
Old English sealt (noun), sealtan (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch zout and German Salz (nouns), from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sal, Greek hals 'salt'.

The New Oxford American Dictionary uses related to where the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary uses akin to.

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That word is so close to another word in another language they are practically family. They may share a common ancestor word or just sound so alike that a relationship is imagined.

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No respectable etymological dictionary would list words that "just sound so alike that a relationship is imagined" (except to point out that they were false cognates, perhaps). –  ShreevatsaR Sep 1 '10 at 6:36
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Akin simply means similar to.

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Couldn't agree more! "Akin" does not, as the questioner suggests, have any connotation of one word being borrowed from another language. –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 31 '10 at 11:13
    
Indeed, “akin to” has a specific meaning concerning language family relationships. –  nohat Sep 3 '10 at 15:41
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i forget the word for when two words are pushed together to make one, but it means they are "kin" (def "1. a person's relatives collectively; kinfolk. 2. family relationship or kinship". The prefix "a-" being akin to its usage in awash, etc.

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The bit about "family roots" or kinship set a little light bulb off in my head–quite charming, actually. Thanks for the more detailed semantic info! –  Charlie Aug 25 '10 at 5:45
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Looking at the M-W dictionary, I noticed that they have both "from" and "akin to" references for words.

The "from" references seem to imply a direct inheritance or borrowing, but doesn't distinguish between the two. For instance, "stone" is shown as coming from Middle English "stan", while entree is shown as coming from the French entree. (Please forgive me for leaving out the accents and macrons). The former is an inheritance from Old English, while the latter is a direct borrow from French.

Akin to, however, seems to refer to other languages that have similar words, possibly due to a shared past, possibly due to an origin not definitively proven. M-W does not seem to specify this, but when drawing links between languages as diverse as Slavic, Germanic, and Greek languages, it's arguable that a common ancestry is implied rather than a direct inheritance or borrowing relationship. However, looking up words like banana or yam, they use "from" to show the direct relation to Spanish or Portugese and say "of African origin", but "akin to" to describe the most likely African language source.

In short, for the M-W team at least, "from" seems to mean "we know where it came from and we can prove it", while "akin to" seems to mean "these words sure seem related, but we can't prove exactly how they're tied together."

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