Proto-Indo-European laks- > Modern English "lox"

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From the time I began the systematic study of the language family in the summer of 1990, I have known that the word "laks-" ("salmon") is important for the early history of Indo-European, yet I felt that something was not quite right about the claims put forward in this article:

"The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years:  The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived."

Sevindj Nurkiyazova, Nautilus, May 13, 2019

The subtitle actually rang truer to me than the title.  I remember reading A. Richard Diebold, Jr.'s virtuoso article, "The Evolution of Indo-European Nomenclature for Salmonid Fish" (1985), which attested to that.  I have to admit, though, that the word's been fairly consistent for eight millennia.

Still, to get to the English of today it had to pass through at least these stages:

From Yiddish לאַקס‎ (laks, “salmon”), from Old High German lahs, from Proto-Germanic *lahsaz (“salmon”), from Proto-Indo-European *laḱs- (“salmon, trout”). Cognate to Icelandic lax, German Lachs. More at lax.



From Middle English lax, from Old English leax (“salmon”), from Proto-West Germanic *lahs (“salmon”), from Proto-Germanic *lahsaz (“salmon”), from Proto-Indo-European *laḱs- (“salmon, trout”). Cognate with Middle Dutch lacks, lachs, lasche (“salmon”), Middle Low German las (“salmon”), German Lachs (“salmon”), Norwegian laks (“salmon”), Danish laks (“salmon”), Swedish lax (“salmon”), Icelandic lax (“salmon”), Lithuanian lašišà (“salmon”), Latvian lasis, Russian лосо́сь (losósʹ, “salmon”), Albanian leshterik (“eel-grass”). See also lox.


1934, American English, from Yiddish laks, from Middle High German lahs "salmon," from Proto-Germanic *lakhs-, from the common IE root for the fish, *laks- (source also of Lithuanian lašiša, Russian losos, Polish łosoś "salmon").

Online Etymology Dictionary

Yiddish laks, from Middle High German lahs, salmon, from Old High German; see laks- in Indo-European roots.

AHD 5th ed.



Suffixed form *laks-o-.

    1. lox from Old High German lahs, salmon;
    2. gravlax from Swedish lax, salmon. Both a and b from Germanic *lahsaz.


[In Pokorny lak̑- 653.]

AHD 5th ed. IE roots

Don Ringe:

You're right, it's not really true.  So far as I know, North American English [lɑks] is identical with the Yiddish word (from which it was borrowed) and the ModHG word (Yiddish began its life as a dialect of High German, after all); but in those lgg. it's descended from OHG lahs, which must have been [laxs] or the like, with a fricative rather than a stop–otherwise they wouldn't have written it that way. And the other Gmc. words which you cite lead to a Proto-Germanic *lahsaz, roughly [laxsaz], with a fricative *and* an ending which does not survive.  The common ancestor of the Gmc. and Balto-Slavic words could have been either *laḱs… or *loḱs…, again with a stop; we don't know how *ḱ was pronounced, of course, but there is clearly a development from stop to fricative (in Gmc.) and back to a stop (in High German).  Whether the vowel was *a or *o is not recoverable, so we can't simply assert that its pronunciation didn't change–and while we don't know what the ending was, because the Gmc. and BS forms don't agree, it *did* have some ending, therefore was *not* a monosyllable like the modern words.  Bringing in the Tocharian and Ossetic words gives rise to more uncertainty, because they don't match the northern European words very well.  So the verdict is "not really"

Brian Joseph:

I am reminded of the PIE short vowel system, with (under one interpretation) i e a o u, and the Modern Greek system with – you guessed it – i e a o u, but this isn’t a case of stability over 6500 years as there were all sorts of fits and starts leading from the PIE system to the modern system.

And, lox in modern English doesn’t mean ‘salmon’ but a particular kind of prepared salmon, namely smoked salmon (one does not order a “lox steak” in a restaurant, for instance.

Doug Adams:

As a matter of fact, laks is the [Tocharian B] word for 'fish.'

Incidentally, it's interesting that the author is a Kyrgyz from Kyrgyzstan, and I want to pay tribute to her for explaining the importance of Thomas Young (1773-1829), “The Last Person Who Knew Everything”, for the study of Indo-European and many other fascinating things:

The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”

Here, all along, in my own mind I've been crediting William Jones with the discovery of Indo-European, when it turns out that Thomas Young should be recognized as having made a greater, more accurate, and more definitive description and naming of the family.

Jones is known today for making and propagating the observation about relationships between the Indo-European languages. In his Third Anniversary Discourse to the Asiatic Society (1786) he suggested that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin languages had a common root, and that indeed they may all be further related, in turn, to Gothic and the Celtic languages, as well as to Persian. Although his name is closely associated with this observation, he was not the first to make it. In the 16th century, European visitors to India became aware of similarities between Indian and European languages and as early as 1653 Van Boxhorn had published a proposal for a proto-language ("Scythian") for Germanic, Romance, Greek, Baltic, Slavic, Celtic and Iranian. Finally, in a memoir sent to the French Academy of Sciences in 1767 Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux, a French Jesuit who spent all his life in India, had specifically demonstrated the existing analogy between Sanskrit and European languages. In 1786 Jones postulated a proto-language uniting Sanskrit, Iranian, Greek, Latin, Germanic and Celtic, but in many ways his work was less accurate than his predecessors', as he erroneously included Egyptian, Japanese and Chinese in the Indo-European languages, while omitting Hindustani and Slavic. Jones also erroneously suggested that Sanskrit ‘was introduced [to north India] by conquerors from other kingdoms in some very remote age’ displacing ‘the pure Hindi’ of north India.

Nevertheless, Jones' third annual discourse before the Asiatic Society on the history and culture of the Hindus (delivered on 2 February 1786 and published in 1788) with the famed "philologer" passage is often cited as the beginning of comparative linguistics and Indo-European studies.

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.

This common source came to be known as Proto-Indo-European.


Among Thomas Young's countless contributions to a diversity of scientific fields, as adumbrated by Sevindj Nurkiyazova in her paragraph about him quoted above, here is a brief account of his achievements in language studies:

In an appendix to his 1796 Göttingen dissertation De corporis hvmani viribvs conservatricibvs there are four pages added proposing a universal phonetic alphabet (so as 'not to leave these pages blank'; lit.: "Ne vacuae starent hae paginae, libuit e praelectione ante disputationem habenda tabellam literarum vniuersalem raptim describere"). It includes 16 "pure" vowel symbols, nasal vowels, various consonants, and examples of these, drawn primarily from French and English.

In his Encyclopædia Britannica article "Languages", Young compared the grammar and vocabulary of 400 languages. In a separate work in 1813, he introduced the term Indo-European languages, 165 years after the Dutch linguist and scholar Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn proposed the grouping to which this term refers in 1647.


Although the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs is generally attributed to Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), Young made fundamental discoveries pertaining to the writing system and is widely and rightfully recognized for the essential part he played in cracking the code, as it were.

And now let us celebrate Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn, Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux, William Jones, Thomas Young, and all the other geniuses who have, with increasing precision, brought to light the relatedness of all the daughter languages in this ever burgeoning language family, by raising a hearty bagel with lots of Philadelphia cream cheese, lox, and capers.


Selected reading


[h.t. Alan Kennedy]


  1. Twill said,

    December 26, 2020 @ 2:44 pm

    It's more or less impossible for the target vowels of a language to remain unchanged over an 80 year period, much less 8000, so any claim of that nature needs to be taken, uh, laxly, and I would have little qualm with the title it if "lox" weren't a marked loanword to me. Maybe I've just come to accept that every headline on the internet is going to be at least moderately misleading or overstated.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    December 26, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

    every headline on the internet is going to be at least moderately misleading or overstated

    …not just on the Internet!

  3. Guan Yang said,

    December 26, 2020 @ 4:20 pm

    As Brian Joseph pointed out, lox in English is more specific than the foreign word it borrows from. Other food examples are “kale”, “gelato” and “kielbasa”. Are other examples in English or other languages?

  4. Topher Cooper said,

    December 26, 2020 @ 5:07 pm

    "[L]ox in modern English doesn’t mean ‘salmon’ but a particular kind of prepared salmon, namely smoked salmon…"

    With all due respect to Brian Joseph, although the term has come to be used loosely, lox specifically refers to a kind of cured salmon (brined) with no smoking involved. The newer, more general term just means, I believe, something like any non-kippered cured salmon, generally thinly sliced.

    I have a good friend who raves about this issue at great length (though I doubt he would admit to mere usage as providing any real legitimacy to the general term). Unsurprisingly he is an editor (book). I think, at root, it is a matter of what others might call "cultural appropriation" (I have never heard him use the term and suspect that he strongly objects to it). In this case the culture being traditional New York Jewish culture.

    You may hear from him (as may I, for the previous paragraph, if he reads the comments), since I think he will find the article interesting overall.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 27, 2020 @ 11:04 am

    If we're being careful about Young's contributions, he didn't come up with the wave theory of light, contrary to what Sevindj Nurkiyazova said. Christian Huygens did that in 1690. Young did the experiment that convinced people to accept it.

    Having been too lazy to look it up all these years, I see Young also is the eponym of the Young's modulus, which tells how much stress is necessary to stretch or compress an elastic object by a given percentage. However, in this case Young may get too much of the credit.

    The on-line Encyclopedia Britannica article about Young's modulus describes him as an "18th-century English physician and physicist"—nothing about language. The article about him mentions his work on the Rosetta Stone but not his work on Indo-European languages, though Young published much of his linguistic work as Britannica articles.

  6. AG said,

    December 28, 2020 @ 1:23 am

    William Jones has the odd distinction of always being superficially mentioned in brief historical surveys of my personal interests (linguistics, chess, and colonial India).

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 28, 2020 @ 4:24 pm

    Brian Joseph's observation can be generalized. It's very common for a loanword to have a more restricted meaning than in the source language: prosciutto (in Italian it means simply "ham"), lied (in German simply "song"), sombrero (in Spanish simply "hat"), and so on.

  8. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 28, 2020 @ 5:38 pm

    >Guan Yang

    As Coby Lubliner notes, such sense contraction is common in borrowing. For a random non-English example, mail in Swedish (also spelt mejl) means specifically "email".

  9. Diederik said,

    January 3, 2021 @ 9:49 am

    'Lox' in Old English meant 'lynx', it's cognate with archaic Dutch 'los' and German 'Luchs'. Just an interested tidbit here.

    It's such a weird claim on its face since 'lox' is obviously a Yiddish loanword, so any claims of continuity immediately set off all my alarm bells. I get the point that's made (it's not about modern English at all) but it really is an odd way to frame it.

  10. KeithB said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 9:47 am

    A little late to the party, but here is a work on Young's optical work:

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