Say a little prayer for the language learner

I recently noticed the similarity between the German words beten – “to pray” –  and bitten – “to ask or beg someone [for something]” – a similarity that was highlighted when one looks at their past participle forms, the regular gebetet and the irregular gebeten. As I have learned however, these resemblances, however helpful they may feel to me as a learner, may not always signal a relationship between the two words. On checking the etymology via Duden online, I discovered that the two verbs do not appear to share an origin. Beten is said to arise from betōn in Old High German, while bitten appears to have been a Old High German word in its own right. Duden goes on to suggest that bitten originally had connections to “the promise” and “the contract.” Interestingly, the noun die Bitte –”the request” or “the plea” – is listed along with beten rather than with bitten. This brought to mind the English expressions “pray, continue” and “pray tell!” which are not entreaties to a higher power, but rather a friendly or ironic request for the speaker to say more.

 

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