My mind moonlights as a rabbit hole. Sometimes I will come across something ordinary and my brain will flashback to a peculiar, tangentially related incident that makes me reconsider the so-called ordinary thing. Then, to better understand this sudden flashback, I search for related information online. In this way, something as common as a sock puppet will remind me of a beloved childhood TV show and then lead me down a few Google searches about the TV show and the actors who starred in it. Today, my mind took similar leaps and bounds when I came across the German word “lehrte.”
“Lehrte” is the simple past form of the word “lehren,” which means “to teach.” As a native English speaker (and early-intermediate German learner), I naturally connected the word “lehrte” to the English “learn.” However, as I mentioned, this word does not mean “to learn” but “to teach.” This realization strangely triggered a flashback to my days in the college marching band. During a break one hot August day, I remember a fellow band member informing me that “learn” and “teach” are related and phrases like “learn you some manners,” although usually said in jest, are linguistically valid. While I simply filed this information away at the time, stumbling upon the German word “lehrte” seemed like a direct connection to this long-ago incident.
Through a few Google searches, I found some very satisfying information, namely that the infinitive “to learn” has two etymological roots.
- To Learn (meaning to acquire knowledge) comes from the Middle English “lernen” (this is also the German word for “to learn”).
- To Learn (meaning to teach) is possibly related to the to Middle English “leren,“ meaning “to teach, instruct, indoctrinate”.
So, with the word meaning to learn being “lernen” and the word meaning to teach being “leren” these words, presumably, both evolved into “to learn” in English. Meaning that centuries ago, the infinitive “to learn” bore the connotation of “acquiring knowledge” and “conveying knowledge.”
On Wiktionary, I found a few examples of how “to learn” (meaning “to teach”) was used in older variations of English including:
- “Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.” (1599, William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 4 Scene 1)
- “Have I not been / Thy pupil long? Hast thou not learn’d me how / To make perfumes?” (circa 1611, William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act I Scene 5:”
Also, comically, on this same page, a line from the 1993 episode of “The Simpsons” is included when Lisa thinks the line “That’ll learn him to bust my tomater.”
So, wow! As a lover of languages this fun little fact made my day. And, if not yours, I hope I at least I was able to learn you something interesting today, Dear Reader.
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