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The Etymology of English Words.1

Are All English Words Really English?


As a matter of fact, they are — if we regard them in the light of present-day English. If, however, their origins are looked into, the picture may seem somewhat bewildering. A person who does not know English but knows French (Italian, Latin, Spanish) is certain to recognize a great number of familiar-looking words when skipping through an English book.

It is true that English vocabulary, which is one of the most extensive amongst 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. In order to have a better understanding of the problem, it will be necessary to go through a brief survey of certain historical facts, relating to different epochs.


* * *

The first century В. С. Most of the territory now known to us as Europe is occupied by the Roman Empire. Among the inhabitants of the continent are Germanic tribes, "barbarians" as the arrogant Romans call them. Theirs is really a rather primitive stage of development, especially if compared with the high civilization and refinement of Rome. They are primitive cattle-breeders and know almost nothing about land cultivation. Their tribal languages contain only Indo-Europe-an and Germanic elements. The latter fact is of some importance for the purposes of our survey.

Now comes an event which brings an important change. After a number of wars between the Germanic tribes and the Romans these two opposing peoples come into peaceful contact. 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 are 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 enter their vocabularies reflecting this new knowledge: cherry (Lat. cerasum), pear (Lat. pirum), plum (Lat. prunus), pea (Lat. pisum), beet (Lat. beta), pepper (Lat. piper). It is interesting to note that the word plant is also a Latin borrowing2 of this period (Lat. planta).

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 fact that all these borrowings occurred is in itself significant. It was certainly important that the Germanic tribal languages gained a considerable number of new words and were thus enriched. What was even more significant was that all these Latin words were destined to become the earliest group of borrowings in the future English language which was — much later — built on the basis of the Germanic tribal languages. Which brings us to another epoch, much closer to the English language as we know it, both in geographical and chronological terms.

The fifth century A. D. Several of the Germanic tribes (the most numerous amongst them being the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes) migrated across the sea now known as the English Channel 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 they were no match for the military-minded Teutons and gradually yielded most of their territory. They retreated to the North and South-West (modern Scotland, Wales and Cornwall). Through their numerous contacts with the defeated Celts, the conquerors got to know and assimilated a number of Celtic words (Mod. E. bald, down, glen, druid, 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 and features 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 being "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 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).

Additionally, in a class of their own were educational terms. It was quite natural that these 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. scholars(-is) and magister (Lat. magister).

From the end of the 8th c. to the middle of the 11th с. England underwent several Scandinavian invasions which inevitably left their trace on English vocabulary. Here are some examples of early Scandinavian borrowings: call, v., take, v., cast, v., die, v., law, n., husband, n.(< Sc. hus + bondi, i. e. "inhabitant of the house"), window n. (< Sc. vindauga, i. e. "the eye of the wind"), ill, adj., loose, adj., low, adj., weak, adj.

Some of the words of this group are easily recognizable as Scandinavian borrowings 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 O. E. bread which meant "piece" acquired its modern meaning by association with the Scandinavian braud. The О. Е. dream which meant "joy" assimilated the meaning of the Scandinavian draumr (cf. with the Germ. Traum "dream" and the R. дрёма).

1066. With the famous Battle of Hastings, when the English were defeated by the Normans under William the Conqueror, we come to the eventful epoch of the Norman Conquest. The epoch can well be called eventful not only in national, social, political and human terms, but also in linguistic terms. 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.

Everyday life was not unaffected by the powerful influence of French words. Numerous terms of everyday life were also borrowed from French in this period: e. g. table, plate, saucer, 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 c. B. C.), the Renaissance ones were rarely concrete names. They were mostly abstract words (e. g. major, minor, filial, moderate, intelligent, permanent, to elect, to create). There were naturally numerous scientific and artistic terms (datum, status, phenomenon, philosophy, method, music).1 The same is true of Greek Renaissance borrowings (e. g. atom, cycle, ethics, esthete).

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 once more were French borrowings. This time they came from the Parisian dialect of French and are known as Parisian borrowings. Examples: regime, routine, police, machine, ballet, matinee, scene, technique, bourgeois, etc. (One should note that these words of French origin sound and "look" very different from their Norman predecessors. We shall return to this question later (see Ch. 4).)

Italian also contributed a considerable number of words to English, e. g. piano, violin, opera, alarm, colonel.


* * *


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. You can also recognize words of Latin and French origin by certain suffixes, prefixes or endings. The two tables below will help you in this.

The historical survey above is far from complete. Its aim is just to give a very general idea of the ways in which English vocabulary developed and of the major events through which it acquired its vast modern resources.


I. Latin Affixes


Nouns The suffix -ion communion, legion, opinion, session, union, etc.
The suffix -tion relation, revolution, starvation, temptation, unification, etc.
Verbs The suffix -ate [eit] appreciate, create, congratulate, etc.
The suffix -ute [ju:t] attribute, contribute, constitute, distribute, etc.
The remnant suffix -ct act, conduct, collect, connect, etc.
The remnant suffix -d(e) applaud, divide, exclude, include, etc.
The prefix dis- disable, distract, disown, disagree, etc.
Adjectives The suffix -able detestable, curable, etc.
The suffix -ate [it] accurate, desperate, graduate, etc.
The suffix -ant arrogant, constant, important, etc.
The suffix -enf absent, convenient, decent, evident, etc.
The suffix -or s major, minor, junior, senior, etc.
The suffix -al с т cordial, final, fraternal, maternal, etc.
The suffix -ar lunar, solar, familiar, etc.

II. French Affixes


  Nouns The suffix -ance arrogance, endurance, hindrance, etc.
The suffix -erace consequence, intelligence, patience, etc.
The suffix -merit appointment, development, experiment, etc.
The suffix -age courage, marriage, passage, village, etc.
The suffix -ess tigress, lioness, actress, adventuress, etc.
Adjectives The suffix -ous curious, dangerous, joyous, serious, etc.
Verbs The prefix en- enable, endear, enact, enfold, enslave, etc.


Notes. 1. The tables represent only the most typical and frequent structural elements of Latin and French borrowings.

2. Though all the affixes represented in the tables are Latin or French borrowings, some of the examples given in the third column are later formations derived from native roots and borrowed affixes (e. g. eatable, lovable).

3. By remnant suffixes are meant the ones that are only Partially preserved in the structure of the word (e. g. Lat. -ct < Lat. -ctus).

It seems advisable to sum up what has been said in a table.


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