A Tale of Two Earths

Unearthing the journey from Ard to Erde

In Arabic, Ard is more than just a word; it’s a tapestry of meanings encompassing Earth, land, soil and one’s homeland. Jump over to the heart of Europe and meet the German Erde. It’s not just the planet we call home; it’s the dirt beneath our feet and the land we till. Two unrelated languages, two similar-sounding words, one shared concept. Coincidence or hidden link?

The Berlin TV tower seen through the World Clock monument at Alexanderplatz Gravitas

The sound of similarity

9-year-old me blissfully ignored the connection as I started learning English. Earth sounded nothing like Ard after all. The eureka moment came years later with the German Erde. It hit me how close to its Arabic counterpart it was. Although linguistically related to Earth, it seemed even closer to Ard.

Having done zero research, I romanticised a (non-factual) historical explanation. It went like this: At the bustling court of a Holy Roman Empire prince, an intriguing Arabic astronomy manuscript surfaces. Its use of Ard for Earth fascinates the scholars. Gradually, this exotic term seeps into their vernacular, evolving into Erde – a charming linguistic crossover born from a blend of astronomy and medieval curiosity.

Problem solved? Not really, but apparently I am not bad at writing alternative history fiction.

A family portrait

Earth and Erde stem from a common proto Germanic root, which goes back to the Indo-European *er-. In that same vein, other Germanic languages have very similar-sounding words for Earth; Dutch has Aarde, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian Jord.

The most noticeable difference is that the th sound in Earth mirrors the d sound in Erde. This is a result of the High German Consonant shift, where, among other several changes, the th sounds shifted to d in High German. Compare brother to Bruder, thorn to Dorn, or thing to Ding. Coincidently, this shift also resulted in the complete opposite phenomenon, where the d sound shifted to t in High German. For example, Tanz instead of dance, Tür instead of door, and Teufel instead of devil.

Languages from another planet

Arabic and its Semitic siblings weren’t invited to the linguistic get-together behind the Alps. Apart from Spanish, Portuguese and Maltese, no other European language exhibits Semitic influences. The Germanic tribes had little to no interactions with the middle eastern and North African civilisations. Any such interactions would have happened through the Roman Empire, a non-Germanic non-Semitic third-party, which territories encompassed both populations.

Echoes of deception

Diving into the realm of linguistics, we encounter the curious world of false cognates: word pairs that sound alike and seem related but hail from different origins. Take, for instance, the Spanish haber and the English to have, the French Feu and the German Feuer… or the Arabic Ard and the German Erde.

Wandering into the territory of speculation (and alternative histories), it’s tempting to muse that a concept as ancient and universal as earth might trace back to an era predating even Proto-Indo-European languages.

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Hi, I am , a software engineer living and working in Berlin, Germany. I started learning German in 2018 and have been writing about it since 2021. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn