The words “read” and “write” are the two most fundamental terms we use regarding the process of communicating using the written form of a language. The word for “read” is remarkably similar across western European languages — except for English. Likewise, the word for “write” is remarkably similar across western European languages — except for English. On the other hand, English is full of other words (but not “read” and “write”) that are closely related to the European words for read and write. The origins of this strange situation deserve a closer look.
In most western European languages, the word for “read” starts with the letter “L”. These languages can be divided into two main groups — those of Latin origin and those of Germanic origin. In each of the Latin languages (Italian, Spanish, French, etc.), the modern word is derived from legere, the Latin word for “read”. The Italian word is still leggere, essentially unchanged from the Latin. In the other Romance languages, the “g” sound was lost, and so we have leer in Spanish, ler in Portuguese, and lire in French.
In English we have many words that are derived from legere. An obvious example is “legible”, which means capable of being read. In Latin, the past participle of legere is lectus, and from this root we get English words such as “lecture” and “lectern”. The original idea of a “lecture” — back in the days when few people could read — was that someone would stand before an assembly of people, reading from a book. And of course, the person doing the reading stood behind a “lectern”, which supported the book. A bit less obvious is that the English word “lesson” also traces back to lectus. The word “lesson” comes from the Old French leçon, which came from the Latin lēctiō — which meant a reading — which in turn came from lectus.
The Latin word legere also has two older meanings — to gather or to choose. When Latin first became a written language, the people needed a word for “read”, so they gave a third meaning to the word legere. It seems a bit of a stretch, but you might think of reading as gathering words, or gathering ideas. The new meaning for legere did not completely replace the older meanings. Instead, the older meanings continued to live on, especially in words that included prefixes. Many of these words entered English in the form of lect attached to a prefix. Such words include “collect”, “select”, and “elect”. The word “collect” has a clear connection to gathering, while “select” and “elect” are clearly connected to choosing.
The list of words derived from legere does not end there. Our word “legend” comes from the idea of “things to be read”. The word “legion” comes from the idea of gathering and choosing men for an army. The word “elegant” reflected the idea of carefully choosing one’s clothes. The words “intelligent” and “intellect” come from attaching the prefix inter- to legere. In Latin this combination means “to understand”. The prefix inter- means “between”, so the word “intelligent” essentially means “reading between the lines” — a way of saying that a person truly understands the text.
Now let’s hop over to the Germanic languages. The German word for “read” is lesen, which is amazingly similar to the English word “lesson”. Although neither word is directly derived from the other, both words trace back to a common Indo-European word, which predated both the Latin languages and the Germanic languages. This word originally referred to gathering, as in gathering wild fruit. But in both the Latin and Germanic branches, the word eventually came to mean “to read”. The upshot is that all of the Germanic languages (except for English) have similar words for “read”. Therefore today we have lesen in German and lezen in Dutch. We have læse in Danish, läse in Swedish, and lese in Norwegian.
But English did not follow the trend, and went its own route instead. The English word “read” comes from the Old English rǣda, which meant to advise, counsel, or guess. While these were the principal meanings of the word, the word also picked up several other meanings — such as to read, explain, or learn by reading. In modern English, the original meaning is no longer attached to the word. But in the other Germanic languages, the corresponding word has kept the earlier meanings. In modern Dutch, the word raden means to guess, advise, or counsel. In modern German, the word raten means to advise or guess. And in Swedish, the word råda means to advise, prevail, or counsel.
The situation with the word “write” is similar to that of “read”. Virtually all of the western European languages use a word for “write” that is derived from the Latin word scrībere. In modern Italian, the word for write is scrivere. In Spanish the word is escribir, and in Portuguese it is escrever. In French the word has been shortened to écrire. In Swedish the word for write is skriva, and in Danish and Norwegian the word is skrive. In German the word for write is schreiben, and in Dutch the word is schrijven.
In English, the word “scribe” — a person whose occupation is writing — is clearly derived from the Latin scrībere. But so is the word “scribble”, which means to write in a rapid and sloppy manner. When you tack a prefix on the front of the word, you get lots of other English words, such as “describe”, “inscribe”, “prescribe”, “subscribe”, and “transcribe”. The Latin word scrīptum is the past participle of scrībere, and from this word we have acquired several English words, including “script”, “scripture”, “manuscript”, and “postscript” — all of which deal with writing. From the same root, we also have several nouns that end in “-tion”, such as “description”, “inscription”, “prescription”, “subscription”, and “transcription”.
However, unlike the other western European languages, our English word “write” does not come from scrībere. Instead, it comes from the Old English wrītan, which originally meant to scratch — in the sense of scratching lines or symbols onto a hard surface. As the concept of writing down texts took hold, the meaning of the word expanded to cover this new activity — and eventually the original meaning of the word was abandoned. Today, we used the words “scratch”, “score”, “etch”, “engrave”, or “inscribe” to cover the original meaning of wrītan.
The ancient Greek word for writing or drawing was graphē. From this word came the modern English words “graph”, “graphic”, and “graphite”. We also have a huge number of words that combine “graph” with another root — such as “autograph”, “bibliography”, “biography”, “calligraphy”, “cartography”, “cryptography”, “demographics”, “geography”, “holographic”, “lithograph”, “oceanography”, “paragraph”, “phonograph”, “photograph”, “pictograph”, “pornography”, “seismograph”, “telegraph”, “topography”, “typographical”, and “videography”.
Any discussion of reading and writing naturally leads to the topic of books. The word “book” comes from the Old English word bōc, which meant a document or charter. Later on, as books became available, the term was applied to these as well — and eventually the word came to mean only the multi-page documents that we currently call a “book”. In the other Germanic languages, the same evolution of the term occurred, and so today the modern German word for “book” is Buch. In Dutch the word is boek. In Swedish and Norwegian, the word for book is bok, and in Danish the word is bog.
In the Latin-based languages, the word for “book” is inherited from the Latin word liber, which originally meant “tree bark”, but eventually came to mean “book”. The Latin word liber is essentially identical to another Latin word — līber — which means “free”, but apparently this similarity is a coincidence. (However, it is fun to consider the idea that books set you free — which would make a great pun in Latin.) In modern Spanish and Italian, the word for book is libro. In Portuguese the word for book is livro, and in French it is livre. In English there are several words from the same Latin root. For example, a “libretto” is the set of words in an opera or other long work. The word “libel” also comes from liber. Originally the word meant a document or written statement, but the meaning has narrowed to refer only to documents that contain intentional falsehoods.
The most obvious English word derived from liber is “library” — which of course means a collection of books. A person can have a personal library, but the popular use of the term usually refers to a building that contains a very large number of books — especially a public library where the general public can read or borrow books. What makes this use of the word a bit odd is that in all of the Latin-based languages, the word “library” took a slightly different turn. The original Latin word was librārium, which meant a chest for holding books. The closely related word libraria came to mean a bookseller’s shop. Today, the Spanish word librería and the French word librairie both mean “bookstore”. Likewise the Italian word libreria and the Portuguese word livraria also mean “bookstore”. All of these languages use a completely different word to mean library — which we’ll describe in a moment. Of course, a bookstore and a library both contain books, but we find it helpful to use two different words to distinguish between these two concepts.
Among the Germanic languages, the word for “bookstore” is usually a compound word consisting of the word for “book”, plus a word meaning “shop” or “trade”. The German word for bookstore is Buchladen, where Laden means “shop” or “store”. Likewise the Dutch word is boekwinkel, where winkel also means “shop” or “store”. The Swedish and Norwegian word for bookstore is bokhandel, where handel means trade or commerce. The Danish word boghandel is nearly identical.
While the Romance and Germanic languages have gone in two distinct directions on the word for “bookstore”, they are united on the word for “library”. That is, except for English, which is the odd man out again — just as in the words for “read” and “write”. Throughout Western Europe, the Latin word for library — bibliothēca — has been adopted into the local languages. In Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, the word for library is biblioteca. In Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, the word is bibliotek. In German the word is Bibliothek, and in Dutch the word is bibliotheek. In French the word is bibliothèque.
The Latin word bibliothēca is derived from the Greek word bibliothēke, which meant bookcase or library. The Greek word was compounded from two earlier words — bibliòn, which meant “book”, and thēke, which meant receptacle. We have several words in English that come from bibliòn, such as “Bible”. A “bibliography” is a list of books and articles about a particular topic, and a “bibliophile” is someone who loves books.
That brings us to the end of our discussion about “read” and “write”. I hope that you have enjoyed what you have read! Feel free to write a comment if you are so inspired. And don’t forget to click the heart icon if you enjoyed this essay!