The Etymology of English Words


Survey of certain historical facts

Structural elements of borrowings

Why Are Words Borrowed?

Do Borrowed Words Change or do They Remain the Same?

International Words

Etymological Doublets


Are Etymological and Stylistic Characteristics of Words Interrelated?

Survey of certain historical facts

It is true that English vocabulary, which is one of the most extensive among the world’s languages contains an immense number of words of foreign origin. Explanations for this should be sought in the history of the language which is closely connected with the history of the nation speaking the language.

The first century B. C. Most of the territory now known to us as Europe was occupied by the Roman Empire. Among the inhabitants of the Europe are Germanic tribes. Theirs stage of development was rather primitive, especially if compared with the high civilization of Rome. They are primitive cattle-breeders and know almost nothing about land cultivation. Their tribal languages contain only Indo-European and Germanic elements.

Due to Roman invasion Germanic tribes had to come into contact with Romans. Romans built roads, bridges, military camps. Trade is carried on, and the Germanic people gain knowledge of new and useful things. The first among them are new things to eat. It has been mentioned that Germanic cattle-breeding was on a primitive scale. Its only products known to the Germanic tribes were meat and milk. It is from the Romans that they learn how to make butter and cheese and, as there are naturally no words for these foodstuffs in their tribal languages, they had to use the Latin words to name them (Lat. «butyrum», «caseus»). It is also to the Romans that the Germanic tribes owe the knowledge of some new fruits and vegetables of which they had no idea before, and the Latin names of these fruits and vegetables entered their vocabularies: «cherry» (Lat. «cerasum»), «pear» (Lat. «pirum»), «plum» (Lat. «prunus»), «pea» (Lat. «pisum»), «beet» (Lat. «beta»), «pepper» (Lat. «piper»).

Here are some more examples of Latin borrowings of this period: «cup» (Lat. «cuppa»), «kitchen» (Lat. «coquina»), «mill» (Lat. «molina»), «port» (Lat. «portus»), «wine» (Lat. «vinum»).

The Germanic tribal languages gained a considerable number of new words and were thus enriched.

Latin words became the earliest group of borrowings in the future English language which was — much later — built on the basis of the Germanic tribal languages.

The fifth century A.D. Several of the Germanic tribes (the most numerous among them were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes) migrated across the sea to the British Isles. There they were confronted by the Celts, the original inhabitants of the Isles. The Celts desperately defended their lands against the invaders, but nevertheless gradually yielded most of their territory. They retreated to the North and South-West (modern Scotland, Wales and Cornwall). Through numerous contacts with the defeated Celts, the conquerors borrowed a number of Celtic words (bald, down, glen, bard, cradle). Especially numerous among the Celtic borrowings were place names, names of rivers, hills, etc. The Germanic tribes occupied the land, but the names of many parts of their territory remained Celtic. For instance, the names of the rivers Avon, Exe, Esk, Usk, Ux originate from Celtic words meaning «river» and «water».

Ironically, even the name of the English capital originates from Celtic «Llyn+dun» in which «llyn» is another Celtic word for «river» and «dun» stands for «a fortified hill» — the meaning of the whole is «fortress on the hill over the river».

Some Latin words entered the Anglo-Saxon languages through Celtic, among them such widely-used words as «street» (Lat. strata via) and «wall» (Lat. vallum).

The seventh century A. D. This century was significant for the christianization of England. Latin was the official language of the Christian church, and consequently the spread of Christianity was accompanied by a new period of Latin borrowings. These borrowings no longer came from spoken Latin as they did eight centuries earlier, but from church Latin. Also, these new Latin borrowings were very different in meaning from the earlier ones. They mostly indicated persons, objects and ideas associated with church and religious rituals: e. g. priest (Lat. presbyter), bishop (Lat. episcopus), monk (Lat. monachus), nun (Lat. nonna), candle (Lat. candela).

It was quite natural that educational terms were also Latin borrowings, for the first schools in England were church schools, and the first teachers priests and monks. So, the very word «school» is a Latin borrowing (Lat. schola, of Greek origin) and so are such words as «scholar» (Lat. Scholar (-is) and «magister» (Lat. magister).

From the end of the 8th century to the middle of the 11th century England underwent several Scandinavian invasions. Here are some examples of early Scandinavian borrowings: call (v.), take (v.), cast (v.), die (v.), law (n.), husband (n.), window (n.), ill (adj.), loose, (adj.), low (adj.), weak (adj.). Some of Scandinavian borrowings are easily recognizable by the initial (sk-) combination. E. g. sky, skill, skin, ski, skirt.

Certain English words changed their meanings under the influence of Scandinavian words of the same root. So, the old English «bread» which meant «piece» acquired its modern meaning by association with the Scandinavian «braud». The old English «dream» which meant «joy» assimilated the meaning of the Scandinavian «draumr''.

1066. With the famous Battle of Hastings, when the English were defeated by the Normans under William the Conqueror, began the eventful epoch of the Norman Conquest. The Norman culture of the 11th century was certainly superior to that of the Saxons. The result was that English vocabulary acquired a great number of French words. But instead of being smashed and broken by the powerful intrusion of the foreign element, the English language managed to preserve its essential structure and vastly enriched its expressive resources with the new borrowings. England became a bilingual country, and the impact on the English vocabulary made over this two-hundred-years period is immense: French words from the Norman dialect penetrated every aspect of social life. Here is a very brief list of examples of Norman French borrowings.

Administrative words: state, government, parliament, council, power.

Legal terms: court, judge, justice, crime, prison.

Military terms: army, war, soldier, officer, battle, enemy.

Educational terms: pupil, lesson, library, science, pen, pencil.

Terms of everyday life: table, plate, dinner, supper, river, autumn, uncle, etc.

The Renaissance Period. In England, as in all European countries, this period was marked by significant developments in science, art and culture and, also, by a revival of interest in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and their languages. Hence, there occurred a considerable number of Latin and Greek borrowings. In contrast to the earliest Latin borrowings (1st century B.C.), the Renaissance ones were rarely concrete names. They were mostly abstract words (e. g. major, minor, moderate, intelligent, permanent, to elect, to create). There were numerous scientific and artistic terms (e.g. datum, status, phenomenon, philosophy, method, music). Quite a number of words were borrowed into English from Latin and had earlier come into Latin from Greek.

The Renaissance was a period of extensive cultural contacts between the major European states. Therefore, it was only natural that new words also entered the English vocabulary from other European languages. The most significant were French borrowings. This time they came from the Parisian dialect of French and are known as Parisian borrowings. Examples: routine, police, machine, ballet, matinee, scene, technique, bourgeois, etc. Italian also contributed a considerable number of words to English, e. g. piano, violin, opera, alarm, colonel.

The historical survey above shows the ways in which English vocabulary developed and of the major events through which it acquired its vast modern resources. Summary is shown in the table 1.

The second column of the table contains more groups, but it also implies a great quantity of words. Modern scholars estimate the percentage of borrowed words in the English vocabulary at 65—70 per cent which is an exceptionally high figure. It means that the native element doesn’t prevail. This anomaly is explained by the country’s eventful history and by its many international contacts.

Considering the high percentage of borrowed words, one would have to classify English as a language of international origin or, at least, a Romance one (as French and Latin words obviously prevail). But here another factor comes into play: the native element in English comprises a large number of high-frequency words like the articles, prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, auxiliaries and, also, words denoting everyday objects and ideas (e. g. house, child, water, go, come, eat, good, bad, etc.).

Furthermore, the grammatical structure is essentially Germanic and it remains unaffected by foreign influence.

The Etymological Structure of English Vocabulary

Table 1

The native element

The borrowed element

1.Indo-European element

I. Celtic (5th — 6th c.A.D.).

2.Germanic element

II. Latin

1st group: 1st c.B.C.

2st group: 7th c.A.C.

3st group: the Renaissance period

3.English Proper element (no earlier than 5th c.A.D.)

III. Scandinavian (8th — 11th c.A.D.)

IV. French

1. Norman borrowings: 11th-13th c.A.D.

2. Parisian borrowings (Renaissance)

V. Greek (Renaissance)

VI. Italian (Renaissance and later)

VII. Spanish (Renaissance and later)

VIII. German

IX. Indian

X. Russian and some other groups

The first column of the table consists of three groups, only the third being dated: the words of this group appeared in the English vocabulary in the 5th century or later, that is, after the Germanic tribes migrated to the British Isles. The tribal languages of the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, by the time of their migration, contained only words of Indo-European and Germanic roots plus a certain number of the earliest Latin borrowings.

By the Indo-European element are meant words of roots common to all (or most) languages of the Indo-European group. The words of this group denote elementary concepts without which no human communication would be possible. The following groups can be identified.

  1. Family relations: father, mother, brother, son, daughter.
  2. Parts of the human body: foot, nose, lip, heart.
  3. Animals: cow, swine, goose.
  4. Plants: tree, birch, corn.
  5. Time of day: day, night.
  6. Heavenly bodies: sun, moon, star.
  7. Numerous adjectives: red, new, glad, sad.
  8. The numerals from one to a hundred.
  9. Pronouns — personal (except «they» which is a Scandinavian borrowing) and demonstrative.
  10. Numerous verbs: be, stand, sit, eat, know.

The Germanic element represents words of roots common to all or most Germanic languages. Some of the main groups of Germanic words are the same as in the Indo-European element.

  1. Parts of the human body: head, hand, arm, finger, bone.
  2. Animals: bear, fox, calf.
  3. Plants: oak, fir, grass.
  4. Natural phenomena: rain, frost.
  5. Seasons of the year: winter, spring, summer.
  6. Landscape features: sea, land.
  7. Human dwellings and furniture: house, room, bench.
  8. Sea-going vessels: boat, ship.
  9. Adjectives: green, blue, grey, white, small, thick, high, old, good.
  10. Verbs: see, hear, speak, tell, say, answer, make, give, drink.

The English proper element is opposed to the first two groups. For not only it can be approximately dated, but these words have another distinctive feature: they are specifically English have no cognates in other languages whereas for Indo-European and Germanic words such cognates can always be found, as, for instance, for the following words of the Indo-European group.

Star: Germ. — Stern, Lat. — Stella, Gr. — aster.

Stand: Germ. — stehen, Lat. — stare, R. — стоять.

Here are some examples of English proper words: bird, boy, girl, lord, lady, woman, daisy, always.

Structural elements of borrowings

There are certain structural features which enable us to identify some words as borrowings and even to determine the source language. We have already established that the initial (sk) usually indicates Scandinavian origin. We can also recognize words of Latin and French origin by certain suffixes, prefixes or endings. Here are some typical and frequent structural elements of Latin and French borrowings:

Latin affixes of nouns:

The suffix (-ion): legion, opinion, etc.; the suffix (-tion): relation, temptation, etc.

Latin affixes of verbs:

The suffix (-ate): appreciate, create, congratulate, etc.; the suffix (-ute): attribute, distribute, etc.; the remnant suffix (-ct): act, collect, conduct, etc.; the prefix (dis-): disable, disagree, etc.

Latin affixes of adjectives:

The suffix (-able): detestable, curable, etc.; the suffix (-ate): accurate, graduate, etc.; the suffix (-ant): constant, important, etc.; the suffix (-ent): absent, evident, etc.; the suffix (-or): major, senior, etc.; the suffix (-al): final, maternal, etc.; the suffix (-ar): solar, familiar, etc.

French affixes of nouns:

The suffix (-ance): endurance, hindrance, etc.; the suffix (-ence): consequence, patience, etc.; the suffix (-ment): appointment, development, etc.; the suffix (-age): courage, marriage, village, etc.; the suffix (-ess): actress, adventuress, etc.

French affixes of verbs:

The prefix (en-): enable, enact, enslave, etc.

French affixes of adjectives:

The suffix (-ous): curious, dangerous, etc.

It’s important to note that later formations derived from native roots borrowed Latin and French affixes (e.g. eatable, lovable).