Today is Easter

Today is Easter. Foreign students of English may wonder, as native speakers rarely seem to, whether there’s a connection between Easter and east. There is. Modern English east is descended from the identically spelled Old English east. (The word had two syllables, e-ast. The vowels were pronounced as in Spanish, and the first vowel was long, meaning that it was held for a longer time than the second vowel.) Old English east developed from the Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine,’ so that in etymological terms east is the direction from which the sun shines forth at dawn.

English Easter [Sun]day traces back to Old English Easterdæg. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained the first part of that compound (which was pronounced E-ast-er or E-ast-re, with the first vowel long): “The name Easter (Ger. Ostern), like the names of the days of the week, is a survival from the old Teutonic [i.e. Germanic] mythology. According to Bede (De Temp. Rat. c. xv.) it is derived from Eostre, or Ostdra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month answering to our April, and called Eostur-monath, was dedicated. This month, Bede says, was the same as the mensis paschalis, ‘when the old festival was observed with the gladness of a new solemnity.'” We can add that Anglo-Saxon Easter (or Eastre or Eostre or Ostdra) probably arose as a goddess of the dawn that brightens the eastern [from Old English easterne] horizon at the beginning of each day; and that the spring, of which Easter was a goddess, is the season in which the amount of sunshine gradually increases. Spring is metaphorically the dawning of the new year.

English east and the synonymous Spanish este are clearly related, but only scholars are likely to know that Spanish took este (originally leste, with the definite article attached, as still in Portuguese) from French est, and that French est had come from Middle English est. It’s curious that the word started out as east in Old English, became est in Middle English, and is now back to east (though with a different pronunciation). It’s also curious that both French and Spanish should have borrowed the word, directly or indirectly, from English.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 01, 2018 @ 21:50:59

    Coincidentally, I recently came across this article about a pub in London with a history of hanging up hot cross buns in a net above the bar. You can read the fascinating history in the brief article, but I found this interesting, as it relates to your post:

    “In ancient times, worshippers ate sweet buns marked with a cross to honor Eostre, the goddess of the dawn. When “Eostre” became “Easter,” the buns stuck around. By the 18th century, British Christians associated the spiced rolls with Good Friday, the day said to commemorate Jesus’s crucifixion. Hot cross buns baked on Good Friday, legend had it, would never decay. When nailed or hung off walls, they could ward away evil and fire.”

    Except the hanging buns of London didn’t keep the pub from burning, but you can read about that in the article.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 01, 2018 @ 23:20:24

      Ah, the things that people believe, even in the face of good evidence to the contrary. You’d think someone would have noticed that at least some hot cross buns baked on Good Friday did eventually decay, and as for the part about warding off evil and fire, well, the fire in the pub should have put an end to that belief, too.

      I looked up the original Latin meaning of superstition: ‘a standing still over or by a thing; hence, amazement, wonder, dread, esp. of the divine or supernatural.’


  2. Maria
    Apr 02, 2018 @ 22:31:17

    Some people complain and say that English is difficult to learn. I think it’s the other way around. English uses fewer words to mean a lot more. For example, I like the idea of using the adjective ‘eastern’, whereas with Spanish you have to say ‘al este’. Many Spanish words need to use prepositions.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 02, 2018 @ 23:00:28

      During its development, English got simplified in several important ways. For example, the language lost almost all our verb endings, and all nouns ended up being of neuter gender except for the ones that designate actual male or female living beings. A fork isn’t a he, and a spoon isn’t a she, as in Spanish.

      One reason some people find English difficult to learn is phonetics. Compared to languages worldwide, Spanish has relatively few sounds, so Spanish speakers have trouble pronouncing English, with its much larger inventory of sounds and sound combinations.


  3. Maria
    Apr 02, 2018 @ 23:27:43

    That’s another reason I like English: nouns that end up being of neuter gender. For example, I like saying “crystal”, rather than “el cristal”, or simply “radio”, rather than saying “la radio”. It just seems faster and simple.

    Yes, phonetics is what may keep some adults from learning English. Children, however, are said to have more “neuro-plasticity” in their brain, so assimilating is said to be much easier. The “neuro-plasticity” is said to last at least until one is 18 or 19 years old. After that, learning a second language may be an uphill endeavor. Of course, nothing beats the actual exposure to the language in the land of origin. I learned English because when I was 13 my father went to work in California, so I was ‘forced’ to rely on my own resources and learn. I had no alternative.


    • Maria
      Apr 03, 2018 @ 00:12:33

      I have to say that I was wrong. I went back to the “neuroplasticity” article and everything has changed. Now ‘neuroplasticity’ extends well into adulthood and even old age. We have the capacity to learn, at any age.

      “During the first half of the 1900s, the word ‘plasticity’ was directly and indirectly rejected throughout science. Many scientists found it hard to receive funding because nearly everyone unanimously supported the fact that the brain was fully developed at adulthood and specific regions were unable to change functions after the critical period. It was believed that each region of the brain had a set and specific function. Despite this, several pioneers pushed the idea of plasticity through means of various experiments and research. There are others that helped to the current progress of activity-dependent plasticity but the following contributed very effective results and ideas early on.-

      “Michael Merzenich is a neuroscientist who has been one of the pioneers of neuroplasticity for over three decades. He has made some of “the most ambitious claims for the field – that brain exercises may be as useful as drugs to treat diseases as severe as schizophrenia – that plasticity exists from cradle to the grave, and that radical improvements in cognitive functioning – how we learn, think, perceive, and remember are possible even in the elderly.”-

      I apologize for the articles being extremely scientific, but it required me to go back to this term and mention Michael Merzenich, who I believe explains ‘neuroplasticity’ very well. “Merzenich as helped to identify two distinct periods of brain plasticity: The Critical Period and the period of Adult Plasticity. The Infant Critical Period is when a child’s brain establishes neural processes for the stimuli to which it is presented. The Adult Plasticity period is when the brain refines its neural processes as it masters a variety of tasks.”-

      I don’t know how phonetics fits into all this, other that children may experience spontaneous learning through the environment, while adults may need to re-structure what they learn because it stops being contextual, nevertheless, according to Michael Merzenich, it can be done.

      In Florida, there are countless of Cubans who simply refuse to learn English. It’s because they have been brought up in isolation with their Cuban peers.This phenomena is perplexing, to say the least.


      • Steve Schwartzman
        Apr 03, 2018 @ 08:08:38

        As far as I can tell, most linguists still believe that the “window” for learning a language as a native language, with all the facility and intuition of a native speaker, has closed by the mid-teens. To acquire fully native pronunciation, the age limit may be lower. Here’s an article about the “critical period”:

        Obviously some adults do much better than others at learning a second language. In addition, as you pointed out, when large numbers of immigrants live near each other and keep speaking their native language, adults in the group may not make much progress in learning the new language.


        • Maria
          Apr 03, 2018 @ 08:42:06

          The link you posted above clearly explains the argument I was initially going to support:

          “In second-language acquisition, the strongest empirical evidence for the critical period hypothesis is in the study of accent, where most older learners do not reach a native-like level. However, under certain conditions, native-like accent has been observed, suggesting that accent is affected by multiple factors, such as identity and motivation, rather than a critical period biological constraint.”-Wiki

          My niece and nephew both speak and pronounce perfect English, and they are of Cuban descent (my sister married a Cuban), but that is because their Cuban father already spoke English well because he left Cuba at the age of 7. He underwent his ‘critical period’ in the US, at a very young age. He was exposed to TV and American schools at very young age. This made the difference. So his children soon picked up on correct pronunciation, up to the point that now Spanish is their second language.

          However, there are still countless of immigrants who continue to arrive and are young. They live in places where only Spanish is spoken, and will not learn English no matter how much one tries to instill the importance of doing so. What’s worse, these young immigrants will have children of their own and raise them exactly the same way, shielded from the reality that they live in US mainland. Some may succeed at breaking the cultural barrier and learn English, but others are so isolated, that they manage to do everything in Spanish, listen to Spanish TV, and manage to have bilingual teachers that don’t expose them properly.


          • Steve Schwartzman
            Apr 03, 2018 @ 08:58:47

            If “bilingual” education were truly bilingual, English-speaking students could learn Spanish and Spanish-speaking students could learn English. I wish I’d grown up with something like that. In practice, however, many “bilingual” classes are filled mostly or entirely with Spanish speakers who are initially taught in Spanish, and who therefore have less incentive to learn English.


            • Maria
              Apr 03, 2018 @ 14:54:08

              When I was young, I had English teachers who were not fluent, but this was entirely normal in a Spanish-speaking country like P.R.. However, in the U.S., bilingual teachers must be 100% fluent in English, because it’s the mother tongue of the nation! These non-fluent in English bilingual teachers do a great injustice to Hispanic children who are at risk of not adapting properly to the schooling system and hinders breaking the cultural barrier so they can live and work in the U.S.! I do support bilingual education, but non-fluent English teachers should be disqualified. They are sheltering the children and hindering their progress constantly!


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