Sunday, March 26, 2006

question for language hounds

I've been wondering about something:

In English, it's called cheese.

In German, it's Käse (or merely Käs', as in Leberkäs', one of my favorite German street foods).

In Spanish, it's queso.

The English, German, and Spanish words for cheese all look as though they come from the same root. Spanish is a Romance language, so one might think that fellow Romance languages like French and Italian would contain words similar in sound or spelling to queso. But no:

In French, cheese is fromage.

In Italian, it's formaggio.

The above two words are obviously related to each other, but seem to have little to do with cheese/Käse/queso.

My question, then, is:

Why? How did this come about?

I'll be checking an etymological dictionary sometime later today. Comments, in the meantime, are appreciated.



Anonymous said...

"Cheese" definitely derives from the German, but I have no idea why Spanish would seem to take after German rather than other Romance languages.

My first thought is that the German tradition may have had a greater influence on Spanish in the area of cheese (e.g., cheese was introduced into Spain from Germany or thereabouts) than Romance language-speaking countries. After all, there is no hard and fast rule that says language families have to stick together one hundred percent of the time. Boundaries in reality are often far more vague than they are in academia.

That would seem to me to be the simplest explanation. I have no evidence to back this up, of course. It's just an idea.

Sean said...

Charles' theory sounds very reasonable and possible to me. I would guess it was originally a loan word in Spanish and then when the French & Italians got cheese they coined a local word rather then import a word.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Here's what Wicked Pedia has to say on this subject:

Cheese in Language:

Cheese in language
Throughout the history of the English language, the word cheese has been chese (in Middle English) and cīese or cēse (in Old English). Similar words are shared by other West Germanic languages — Frisian tsiis, Dutch kaas, German Käse, Old High German chāsi — all of which probably come from the reconstructed West-Germanic root *kasjus, which in turn is an early borrowing from Latin. The Latin word caseus — from which are derived the Spanish queso, Portuguese queijo, Romanian caş and Italian cacio — and the Celtic root which gives the Irish cáis and the Welsh caws are also related. This whole group of words is probably derived from the proto-Indo-European root *kwat-, which means "to ferment, become sour".

When the Romans began to make hard cheeses for their legionaries' supplies, a new word started to be used: formaticum, from caseus formatus, or "molded cheese". It is from this word that we get the French fromage, Italian formaggio, Breton fourmaj and Provençal furmo. Cheese itself is occasionally employed in a sense that means "molded" or "formed". Head cheese uses the word in this sense.

I hope that this is helpful.

Jeffery Hodges

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Anonymous said...

Thanks to the visit of my parents, I now have my "New Shorter Oxford" dictionary (in two very large volumes, it hardly seems shorter) on the premises, although I must admit that I've always coveted the one volume compete OED that is now available with a magnifying glass that has a lens that is about an inche thick. Previous versions of that dictionary were issued in two volume sets.

Anyway, what the Gypsy Scholar quoted from Wikipedia is mirrored in the NSOED. In fact, Wikipedia offers more information than the NSOED in that it gives the precise form of the hypothesized WGerman and proto-Indo-European roots.

Anonymous said...

When will XHTML make the [sigh] command?

Hilarious! My comment wouldn't post because "HTML does not allow" the sigh command! I've just had to delete my attempt at cleverness.

Anonymous said...

I guess I have to explain that. My attempt at cleverness was a simple observation that I had omitted the letter "l," which I had enclosed in an XHTML-style bracketed sigh value.