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I once heard it said that words that existed longer ago often ended up the same in modern languages which are of the same family, for example, hand, hand, and hand, in English, Swedish, and German (resp.).

There may be some flaws in this assumption. One is that there is nothing stopping the word from changing or being replaced by a different one, in one of the languages. Sort of like, we used to welkin, but now we say cloud.

It is also common for the same word to spread laterally (across unrelated languages) extensively, like the word iPhone in so many languages today.

In spite of all this, I find it surprising how many different words for cream there are in Germanic languages.

English: cream

Swedish: grädde

Danish: fløde

German: Sahne

And perhaps there are more examples. (“Als Rahm bzw. im bundesdeutschen Hochdeutsch auch Sahne, im österreichischen Hochdeutsch auch Obers und im Schweizer Hochdeutsch auch Nidel”, Rahm)

I did look at the list of translations of the article and I did see a number of recurrences of cognates across other languages, so maybe it really isn’t so mysterious. Crema appears to be of Latinate origin, which has spread to some non-Romance languages - English by way of the Roman Empire or France, presumably. The most fundamental word coming from old Germanic origin appears to be “Rahm”, which features in Icelandic, Dutch, and some other languages. I do not know if grädde actually drifted from the word “cream” (c -> g), but I find it unlikely since I see no reason the form would change so much in such a short time frame.

So, even if the origin of each word can be explained, it doesn’t satisfy the broader question, which is this. There is probably a kind of “inertia” in languages where it is natural for people to keep using the word they have. It’s an emergent phenomenon given that in a group of people all using and reinforcing the same word, there has to be some particular reason, some force of energy against the default norm, to start using a different one - “an object at rest remains at rest until acted on by an external force”.

So if “hand” has remained unchanged for so long, why did cream get so much leeway to vary, amongst languages? I think to make sure you understand the question, in case you were to say, “Because the Romans came along and brought their word ‘cream’ with them” - sure, but why did the old Germanic word “hand” stay so fixed even in the presence of alternatives, whereas “Rahm” did not? Is it a coincidence, happenstance, or can we note correlations where some words have more of a proclivity to being newly adopted than others, based on their meaning? It sounds unlikely, honestly. My guess is actually that it’s just a huge coincidence. Sometimes anomalies occur and people seek explanations, whereas the answer is it just so happened that the word for cream happened to shift around a lot in neighboring countries, while the word for hand did not. It may have just been arbitrary and accidental, the unpredictable unfolding of world phenomena.

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  • If the words for foodstuff change, I would suspect that marketing or fashion is the reason.
    – user6495
    Feb 3, 2023 at 9:21
  • @Roland I doubt that "marketing and fashion" used to be a thing when the words originaly manifested themselves ;)
    – tofro
    Feb 3, 2023 at 11:15
  • Scottish language has a similair remains of Germanic for cream: ream (even if it sounds close to "cream", it's very probably closer to "Rahm"
    – tofro
    Feb 3, 2023 at 11:28
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    Old English had a cognate of “Rahm”, but it got replaced by “cream”, adopted from French like many food related words in English.
    – Carsten S
    Feb 3, 2023 at 13:51
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    My guess is that contrary to "hand", which always describes the same thing (I hope!), cream has so many variations in how it's made, used etc. across cultures and languages that there are bound to be many different terms that don't necessarily describe exactly the same thing, but regional variations of it. Or at least formerly existing variations that have been eliminated through more intense trade, information exchange and regulation. Feb 3, 2023 at 22:17

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I'm not sure that the question is on-topic for the forum since it's not so much about the German language but about the evolution of languages in general. But yes, if languages didn't evolve then we'd all be speaking the one and this SE wouldn't exist. Not only do the sounds of languages change, but the meanings of words drift and words can acquire new and seemingly unrelated meanings. A new meaning can become the main meaning and a rarely used synonym then replaces the original word. And, as mentioned in the comments, a loan word can replace the home-grown word for various reasons. (The oddest example for me with German is "Baby". I imagine the conversation going like this: "What do we call that noisy, tiny human over there?" "I don't know but the Englander called it a "baby".) Every so often the YouTube channel LangFocus does a "vs." episode comparing two relatively similar languages and you can see this type of thing happened with words from many languages. (The most recent one was How Similar Are ROMANIAN and ITALIAN?.) One thing to keep in mind with English is the Norman conquest and that many words of Norman French origin became used as the "upstairs/masters" meaning while the Old English words remained in use as the "downstairs/servants" meanings. Thus names of foods "beef" and "pork" are of French/Latin origin, while the names of the animals they come from, "cow" and "pig", are of Germanic origin. I suspect this is what happened with "cream"; note that "milk" is of Germanic origin and nothing like the French "lait". Also, think about how many uses the word "cream" has in modern English, the fatty part of milk, an ointment, the best part of something, etc. Multiple meanings must have existed in older languages as well, and the same thing can have multiple names, so which object-name matching eventually became used in a modern language can be largely a matter of historical accident. (See tofro's comment above.)

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    Well, it’s not as if German didn’t have words for small children before adopting “baby” from English. Often, “Kind” will be good enough, and there is of course “Säugling”. I suppose that “Baby” is simpler and more endearing than “Säugling”. My favourite of a loan word for something seemingly fundamental is that “Kopf” has mostly supplanted “Haupt”.
    – Carsten S
    Feb 3, 2023 at 14:27
  • @Carsten S - Yes, I know about "Säugling" and that conversation never actually happened, but it's fun to imagine it happened. I'm not sure if "Kopf" counts as a load word, more like a German word that's adopted a meaning from the corresponding word in another language. I'm not prepared to argue the point though.
    – RDBury
    Feb 3, 2023 at 22:33
  • Thanks, I was wrong about the etymology of "Kopf".
    – Carsten S
    Feb 4, 2023 at 7:32
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This one is simple. The only English cognate to German sein "to be" is sin, from PIE *Hs-en-ti (don't ask me how). Also related is is, *Hes- from a different stem of the same root. It's likely that this lacuna is due to taboo replacement. Food is essential, so comparing it to existence is reasonable, at least on a metaphoric level, so Brötchen Verdienen means to make a living, for example.

Whatever the origin of German Sahne, it would have been similar enough to sin and had to go down. So, this is just a guess.

There are many different historic principles and derivational patterns to consider that are not quite as simplistic. So, this is just a preliminary answer. (PS: See https://www.dwds.de/wb/Sahne in the meanwhile, origin uncertain).

In particular, I think it's not entirely unlikely that hand could be related to Sa-hne, which is so insane it would annihilate the premise of your question, entirely. So, that's a different question!

Suggesting that cream and Rahm are unrelated is a non-starter, also.

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