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It is universal for words to change over the millenia, morphing from one form into another as languages change from one form into another as their family tree sprouts more and more branches over time. For many words in English, we are able to track them back through their various forms to the common ancestral trunk, either through written evidence or through a little educated conjecture as we look at the components that words are made of. We can thus track many English words from their modern form back through Middle English and Old English to a Germanic ancestor and then ultimately to a postulated 'original' Indo-European form.

But there are a lot of words whose history is a less direct, with borrowings that extend across whole families of languages. One such word I came across today is ADOBE, the mud bricks common to the indigenous sloping-walled architecture of the Southwestern United States. As one might guess, 'adobe' came into English from the descendents of the Spanish Conquistadores who were the original European settlers of that area.

Even though the route is already more crooked, as Spanish is a Romance and not Germanic language, it is still within the Indo-European family. But 'adobe' is not an Indo-European word. It came to Spanish during the occupation of most of the Iberian penninsula which extended from the early-700's AD until the battle of Los Navos de Tolosa in 1212, and in some areas of the very south, until 1492: The ancestor of 'adobe' is from the Arabic, at-tuba, “the brick” (with the definite article al- assimilated to the initial t- of the noun).

Arab is from the Semitic group of languages, but Tuba is not; the Arabs too borrowed the word, perhaps on their way of conquest across the north of Africa into Spain, or perhaps even earlier. Tuba is actually of Egyptian-Coptic origin, which is a different branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, as different as Sanskrit is from Latin. We see the ancestor of the Arabic tuba in the Coptic toobe that is preserved in early Christian ecclesiastical writings. In fact, though a dead language, Coptic is still spoken as the official language of the Coptic Church, just as Latin is spoken today as the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.

Coptic has served linguists as the gateway to deciphering the inscriptions of classical Egyptian, where (though the vowels were not recorded in writing) we can still see the echo of 'adobe' in the ancient consonant triplet form dbt, “brick”.

Which seems fitting, because we expect bricks to last a long time.

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