Etymology

English derives from Indo-European family of languages via the Germanic language. The original inhabitants of England were the ‘Celts’, and their languages are Welsh, Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic. The Romans introduced Latin (AD 46 – 410); then came the Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons and Jutes AD460 – 1066). It survives as OE (Old English), which accounts for about 3% of modern language. Middle English arose (AD 1066 – 1500) following the Norman Conquest, which introduced French that became the dominant language.

Old Lady
“It’s all Greek to me.” – Well, actually, only 6% of it is in the English language.

Latin words via the French also added to the mix of original Latin and, of course, French words. From 13th century, when the French were kicked out, English made a comeback, aided by the development of the printing press. The 15th Century endured the ‘Great Vowel Shift’ where pronunciation, but not spelling, were changed. Early Modern English (AD 1500 – 1650) saw the ‘English Renaissance’ and a renewed interest in the classics, which introduced more Latin, and Greek into the vocabulary. Indeed some 12 000 words were evidently acquired this way. Such words were called ‘Inkhorn’ as they were associated with scholars and education generally. From 1650 scientific, medical and technological development demanded new words, and these were again drawn from Latin and Greek. It is estimated today that, aside from specialised words, the English language now has 615 000 words.-

Aside from basic etymology, words were also derived by addition (neologisms), and contractions: compounds (adding two words together); blends (merging parts of two words together); acronyms (usually made up from the abbreviations: RAM, NATO etc); initialisms (words from the initials of a definition: UCT, HIV); Clippings (shortened form of a word: phone); conversions (turning a noun into a verb and vice versa); eponyms and toponyms (words derived from people and places respectively); and affixes (prefixes and suffixes – the most common way root Latin and Greek are used in English); borrowing from other languages (eg: Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, Hungarian, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, America-Indian, Eskimo, African, Hindi, and Mexican-Indian).

Changes in meaning occur with an evolving language: degeneration or ‘pejoration’, where a neutral meaning becomes something bad; and, elevation or ‘amelioration’ where a neutral word becomes associated with something good. Specialisation (where a word becomes more specific) and generalisation (where a word becomes more general in meaning) wrap up our thoughts on the evolution of words.

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon and The Sands of Rotar.

Last updated: Friday, 10th January 2020