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The Heart or Root of Matter

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Editor-in-Chief, ISHLT Links Newsletter

It's human nature. No, this is not the song by Madonna with the refrain beating on... "express yourself, don't repress yourself," and later the words, "you wouldn't let me say the words I long to say...." But I refer you to it. links image Human Nature. Anyway it's been human nature for us to classify, well, just about everything. Now, that we know we are made up billions of cells, there are billions of microorganisms living as communities making up different microbiomes depending on the ecologic niche of their habitats such as: our skin, upper respiratory tract, lower respiratory tract, upper gastrointestinal tract and lower gastrointestinal tract, just to name a few. With his systematic process of classifying all living things, Carl von Linné of Sweden, better known by the Latin version of his name, Carolus Linnaeus, began this remarkable feat in his book Systema Naturae published in 1735. His system of groups, groups of groups, groups of groups of groups and so on gave his description of living things the appearance of a tree with larger branches divided into smaller and smaller branches down to the twigs referred to as species. This notion of biological evolution seemed very natural to Linnaeus even though he was strongly antievolution and clinging to the tale of Genesis.

links imageMany of you may have seen this evolutionary tree in Dr Ronald Collman's fascinating presentation in Montreal on The Human Microbiome. At the same time some of you may have linked the means to classify the origin or roots of the various bacteria and personified the origin or roots of the English language, well at least I did. Compare the metaphorical trees, the unrooted phylogenetic tree of microbes (Figure 1, left) with the origin of the English language beginning with a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) ancestor (Figure 2, below). Why? It's human nature to improve our ability to communicate as we are racing along because of technology. Never before have we been in a situation with a language as global as English is today. It is the effect of globalization and communication technology. English is a second language in many parts of the world, in fact second and foreign language speakers actually outnumber native English speakers.

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To trace English back to its roots linguists have reconstructed ancient languages similar to methods used by molecular biologists in their quest to understand the evolution of life. As biologists identify the fundamental genetic make-up that defines living things, linguists seek corresponding syntax, grammar, vocabulary and vocalization among known languages to reconstruct the "proto-language" or original tongue. To better understand English we must focus on the family of Indo-European languages. You may recall that English belongs to the Germanic family and as health care providers you undoubtedly know the tremendous influence the Italic family has had on the English language. By examining the PIE origin we can start with the ancestral root word "kard" which means heart. Through the evolution of language and vocalization, this root word branches into many daughter languages. In Latin the "k" consonant retains the hard sound as in "cor" or "cordis" as it does in Greek with "kardia." In English we have the word heart. It was Jakob Grimm, of Grimm's Fairy Tales, who identified how Germanic languages were related to their Latin counterparts in terms of consonant differences through the sound law known as Grimm's Law. The PIE consonant /k/, according to Grimm's Law became a Germanic /h/; it remained a /k/ in Latin and Greek. This explains the first consonant in heart and cardiac. Also, examine the words hearty and cordial. This pairing also explains the native English "horn" and the Latin borrowing "cornucopia" meaning "horn of plenty." You should recognize Grimm's /k/, /h/ relationship with the Latin "canis," the German "hund," and the English "hound." Grimm's Law also identifies the PIE consonant /d/ becoming Germanic /t/; therefore we have the second part of the cardiac/heart pairing. You might have wondered about the relationship of foot with pedestrian. Well, Grimm's Law has the answer. Now that you recognize the /d/, /t/ relationship, there is a /p/,/f/ relationship. The Neogrammarians, including Grimm believed these set of sound changes operated without exception and helped explain how the different consonants in modern languages could be traced back to the same PIE root. Of course over time through further investigations exceptions did spring up and these exceptions seemed to follow a consistent pattern, thus another law sprang up, Verner's Law.

I leave you with these thoughts. Are there intrinsic cultural or educated differences in wanting to see a heart doctor or a cardiologist, a foot doctor or a podiatrist or a dentist rather than a tooth doctor?

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.