Rien (suite)

Rien.

reeYAA. Click below to hear this.*

Nothing.

The story of one word, part two. Part one is right here.

As languages evolve, the most commonly used forms are the ones that tend to stick around, while other forms drop out of usage. At that point, the sentence order starts to become important.

And another thing happens: the pronunciation begins to reflect the speech habits of the people in a particular area, who may well have grown up speaking a different language. So they speak the conquerer’s language with an accent–not a foreign accent; the conquerors are the foreignors–but the local accent. So the second language takes on the characteristics of the local language, whether that is Frankish, Gaulish, Saxon, Anglish (English), or something else.

So in what later became France, people kept the word rem for thing, and began to pronounce it with an final /n/ or a nasal sound. And then they began spelling the word as they heard it: ren. That’s the beginning of the French word, and it showed up in documents around the year 980. That’s pretty early!

But how to express the opposite of thing? Simple: ren non, literally thing not. Next thing you know, the two words have collided into one, the extra syllable has dropped (who can be bothered with two syllables when one will do the job?) and ren has taken on the opposite meaning: nothing.

And that is the story of how to make something out of nothing, and then nothing out of something. Don’t you love languages?

*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file:

rien.mp3

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