Filed under: Language
Meanwhile, last week while driving back from somewhere, I was struck by the fact that the word “music” is basically identical in every European language, as far as I can tell. Of those I know, French musique, Russian muzika, and Dutch muziek cover your basic Latinate-Slavic-German portfolio. That’s pretty amazing, considering what an elemental cultural activity music is. It’s impossible to imagine that tribes and clans from Karelia to Gaul weren’t making music 3,000 years ago, and also very hard to imagine that they all would have had the same word for what they were doing. The form of the word is so close, it’s not like rabot/arbeit/travailler, and it’s notable that “r-b-t” seems to have dropped out of English except for the Angl0-French “travail”, which has lost its meaning of “work”; whereas “music” seems to have undergone almost no transformation and not to have dropped out of any languages.
My best guess, after a few minutes, was that it’s from the Greek “muse”. And that turns out to be right, says Wikipedia (Greek mousike to Latin musicaa). A hint to what may have happened comes later in the Wikipedia entry: it seems a lot of Native American and African languages don’t have a separate word for what we would consider “music”, which in those cultures is bound together with dance and religious practice. So what we may be seeing here is the trace of two thousand years in which the conception of music as a distinct art composed entirely of sound spread from Greece and Rome out through classical antiquity and thence to the barbarian lands to the north, becoming the word for that art because those cultures had never conceived of such an art in those terms before. The word for music sounds like “music” everywhere in Europe for the same reason the word for internet sounds like “internet” everywhere around the world.
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