Am I Norse? You “are”
Words about words
M. Michael Brady
The word “are” descends from the Old Norse word eir, which in the mix of languages that evolved around the North Sea, led to the Middle English word ore, and from there to the word of today. Behind that seemingly straightforward evolution lie entangled evolutions that led to The Oxford English Dictionary having seven entries for it. Of these, four are obsolete but are still listed because they are in infrequent use.
Two of the remaining three entries entail mergers of cognates. Arguably most familiar, the word “are” as a verb descends from a merger of Old English (earulm, earon) and Old Norse (eir) cognates. That evolution led to “are” appearing four times in the present tense of the conjugation of the verb “to be,” once in the singular and three times in the plural.
A mélange of accidents of history brought Latin into the evolutions of modern uses of the word “are” as a noun. In French, the word “are” is an adaptation of the Latin word ārea (root of the word “area” in English). That’s an instance of the influence of Latin on words of Old Norse origin. Before the first books were produced in Norway ca. 1050, the only books brought in were in Latin. Moreover, written works in Latin, most likely including books, were part of the booty carried off on June 8, 793, in the Viking raid of the Lindisfarne Priory on the east coast of England, the event that marked the start of the Viking Age.
In 1795, the word “are” gained legal status in France when it was included in a law of the French First Republic. Article 5 of that law defines Are as “la mesure de superficie pour les terrains, égale à un carré de dix mètres de côté” (Measure of a terrain surface, equal to a square of 10 meters on a side). That measure went on to be a derived unit in the international metric system, usually in a combined form, such as hectare, meaning 100 ares, or 10,000 square meters (2.471 acres), a unit of land measurement now used worldwide.
Further reading: La Loi Du 18 Germinal An 3 (Law of the 18th of Germinal of the Year 3), from the calendar of the third year of the French First Republic (1792-1804), equivalent to international standard Gregorian calendar date April 7, 1795, link: aviatechno.net/unites/nouveausys.php (in French).
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.
This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.