Scientists yesterday announced the discovery of a 4.4 million-year-old hominid fossil skeleton, a 110-pound female who lived and died in Ethiopia's Afar Desert. The fossil was assigned to the Ardipithecus ramidus species and given the nickname "Ardi."
The story is fascinating for all sorts of scientific reasons, but I'm most interested in that species name. It turns out to have been coined from two words in the Afar language: ardi, meaning "ground" or "floor"; and ramid, meaning "root."
I'm hardly a linguistics scholar, but I did notice something interesting about those words: they're uncannily similar to words in languages—including English—that are completely unrelated to Afar.
Ardi reminded me of aardvark, a word in Afrikaans (a variant of Dutch spoken by descendants of European settlers in South Africa) that translates literally to "earth pig." Aard, meaning "earth," is related to German erde (soil, earth, ground) and, of course, English earth.
Ramid made me think of ramify, "to branch out," which came into English from Latin ramus (branch), which Online Etymology Dictionary tells me is related to radix, Latin for ... root.
Coincidence? Yes. Afar, a Cushitic language, is spoken by about 1.5 million people in the Horn of Africa. It's unrelated to English, German, Afrikaans, and Latin, all of which belong to the Indo-European language family, whose range is large ... but doesn't include the Horn of Africa. The similar-sounding words are what linguists call false cognates: words that look and sound alike but in fact have different roots.
Still: interesting, no?
(Also unrelated, possibly interesting: if an Ethiopian baby gets fussy, does it emit Afar cry?)