министерство образования российской федерации

Столичный институт переводчиков

факультет английского языка


The Etymology

of English Words


Научный руководитель:




Survey of certain historical facts 3

Structural elements of borrowings 7

Why Are Words Borrowed? 8

Do Borrowed Words Change or

do They Remain the Same? 8

International Words 9

Etymological Doublets 10

Translation-Loans 10

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.

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

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,

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.

Family relations: father, mother, brother, son, daughter.

Parts of the human body: foot, nose, lip, heart.

Animals: cow, swine, goose.

Plants: tree, birch, corn.

Time of day: day, night.

Heavenly bodies: sun, moon, star.

Numerous adjectives: red, new, glad, sad.

The numerals from one to a hundred.

Pronouns — personal (except “they” which is a Scandinavian borrowing)
and demonstrative.

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.

Parts of the human body: head, hand, arm, finger, bone.

Animals: bear, fox, calf.

Plants: oak, fir, grass.

Natural phenomena: rain, frost.

Seasons of the year: winter, spring, summer.

Landscape features: sea, land.

Human dwellings and furniture: house, room, bench.

Sea-going vessels: boat, ship.

Adjectives: green, blue, grey, white, small, thick, high, old, good.

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).

Why Are Words Borrowed?

Sometimes it is done to fill a gap in vocabulary. When the Saxons
borrowed Latin words for «butter», «plum», «beet», they did it because
their own vocabularies lacked words for these new objects. For the same
reason the words “potato” and “tomato” were borrowed by English from
Spanish when these vegetables were first brought to England by the

But there is also a great number of words which are borrowed for other
reasons. There may be a word (or even several words) which expresses
some particular concept, so that there is no gap in the vocabulary and
there does not seem to be any need for borrowing. However a word is
borrowed because it supplies a new shade of meaning or a different
emotional colouring though it represents the same concept. This type of
borrowing enlarges groups of synonyms and provides to enrich the
expressive resources of the vocabulary. That is how the Latin “cordial”
was added to the native “friendly”, the French “desire” to “wish”, the
Latin “admire” and the French “adore” to “like” and “love”.

The historical circumstances stimulate the borrowing process. Each time
two nations come into close contact. The nature of the contact may be
different. It may be wars, invasions or conquests when foreign words are
imposed upon the conquered nation. There are also periods of peace when
the process of borrowing is due to trade and international cultural

Do Borrowed Words Change or

do They Remain the Same?

When words migrate from one language into another they adjust themselves
to their new environment and get adapted to the norms of the recipient
language. They undergo certain changes which gradually erase their
foreign features, and, finally, they are assimilated. Sometimes the
process of assimilation develops to the point when the foreign origin of
a word is quite unrecognizable. It is difficult to believe now that such
words as “dinner”, “cat”, “take”, “cup” are not English by origin.
Others, though well assimilated, still bear traces of their foreign
background. “Distance” and “development”, for instance, are identified
as borrowings by their French suffixes, “skin” and “sky” by the
Scandinavian initial (-sk), “police” and “regime” by the French stress
on the last syllable.

Borrowed words are adjusted in the three main areas of the new language
system: the phonetic, the grammatical and the semantic.

The lasting nature of phonetic adaptation is best shown by comparing
Norman French borrowings to later (Parisian) ones. The Norman borrowings
have for a long time been fully adapted to the phonetic system of the
English language: such words as “table”, “plate”, “courage”, “chivalry”
bear no phonetic traces of their French origin. Some of the later
(Parisian) borrowings, even the ones borrowed as early as the 15th
century, still sound surprisingly French: “regime”, “valise”, “matinee”,
“cafe”, “ballet”. In these cases phonetic adaptation is not completed.

Grammatical adaptation consists in a complete change of the former
paradigm of the borrowed word. If it is a noun, it is certain to adopt,
sooner or later, a new system of declension; if it is a verb, it will be
conjugated according to the rules of the recipient language. Yet, this
is also a lasting process. The Russian noun “пальто” was borrowed from
French early in the 19th century and has not yet acquired the Russian
system of declension. The same can be said about such English
Renaissance borrowings as “datum” (pl. data), “phenomenon” (pl.
phenomena), “criterion” (pl. criteria) whereas earlier Latin borrowings
such as “cup”, “plum”, “street”, “wall” were fully adapted to the
grammatical system of the language long ago.

By semantic adaptation is meant adjustment to the system of meanings of
the vocabulary. Sometimes a word may be borrowed «blindly» for no
obvious reason: they are not wanted because there is no gap in the
vocabulary nor in the group of synonyms which it could fill. Quite a
number of such «accidental» borrowings are very soon rejected by the
vocabulary and forgotten. But some “blindly” borrowed words managed to
establish itself due to the process of semantic adaptation. The
adjective “large”, for instance, was borrowed from French in the meaning
of «wide». It was not actually wanted, because it fully coincided with
the English adjective “wide” without adding any new shades or aspects to
its meaning. This could have led to its rejection. Yet, “large” managed
to establish itself very firmly in the English vocabulary by semantic
adjustment. It entered another synonymic group with .the general meaning
of “big in size”. Still bearing some features of its former meaning it
is successfully competing with “big” having approached it very closely,
both in frequency and meaning.

International Words

It is often the case that a word is borrowed by several languages, not
just by one. Such words usually convey concepts which are significant in
the field of communication. Many of them are of Latin and Greek origin.

Most names of sciences are international (e. g. philosophy, mathematics,
physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, linguistics, lexicology). There
are also numerous terms of art in this group: music, theatre, drama,
tragedy, comedy, artist, primadonna, etc.; and the sports terms:
football, volley-ball, baseball, hockey, cricket, rugby, tennis, golf,
etc. It is quite natural that political terms frequently occur in the
international group of borrowings: politics, policy, revolution,
progress, democracy, communism, anti-militarism. 20th century scientific
and technological advances brought a great number of new international
words: atomic, antibiotic, radio, television, sputnik (a Russian
borrowing). Fruits and foodstuffs imported from exotic countries often
transport their names too and become international: coffee, cocoa,
chocolate, banana, mango, avocado, grapefruit.

The similarity of such words as the English “son”, the German “Sohn” and
the Russian “сын” should not lead one to the quite false conclusion that
they are international words. They represent the Indo-European group of
the native element in each respective language and are cognates, i. e.
words of the same etymological root, and not borrowings.

Etymological Doublets

The words originating from the same etymological source, but differing
in phonemic shape and in meaning are called etymological doublets.

They may enter the vocabulary by different routes. Some of these pairs
consist of a native word and a borrowed word: “shrew”, n. (E.) –
“screw”, n. (Sc.). Others are represented by two borrowings from
different languages: “canal” (Lat.) — “channel” (Fr.), “captain” (Lat.)
— “chieftain” (Fr.). Still others were borrowed from the same language
twice, but in different periods: “travel” (Norm. Fr.) — “travail» (Par.
Fr.), “cavalry” (Norm. Fr.) — “chivalry” (Par. Fr.), “gaol” (Norm. Fr.)
— “jail” (Par. Fr.).

A doublet may also consist of a shortened word and the one from which it
was derived: “history” — “story”, “fantasy” — “fancy”, “defence” —
“fence”, “shadow” — “shade”.

Etymological triplets (i. e. groups of three words of common root) occur
rarer, but here are at least two examples: “hospital” (Lat.) — “hostel”
(Norm. Fr.) — “hotel” (Par. Fr.), “to capture” (Lat.) — “to catch”
(Norm. Fr.) — “to chase” (Par. Fr.).


By translation-loans we indicate borrowings of a special kind. They are
not taken into the vocabulary of another language more or less in the
same phonemic shape in which they have been functioning in their own
language, but undergo the process of translation. It is quite obvious
that it is only compound words (i. e. words of two or more stems). Each
stem was translated separately: “masterpiece” (from Germ.
“Meisterstuck”), “wonder child” (from Germ. “Wunderkind”), ”first
dancer” (from Ital. “prima-ballerina”).

Are Etymological and Stylistic Characteristics

of Words Interrelated?

The answer must be affirmative. Among learned words and terminology the
foreign element dominates the native.

It also seems that the whole opposition of «formal versus informal» is
based on the deeper underlying opposition of «borrowed versus native»,
as the informal style, especially slang and dialect, abounds in native
words even though it is possible to quote numerous exceptions.

In point of comparing the expressive and stylistic value of the French
and the English words the French ones are usually more formal, more
refined, and less emotional. “to begin” – “to commence”, “to wish” — “to
desire”, “happiness» — “felicity”.

English words are much warmer than their Latin synonyms, they don’t
sound cold and dry: “motherly” — “maternal”, “fatherly” — “paternal”,
“childish” — “infantile», “daughterly” — “filial”, etc.

Г.Б.Антрушина, О.В.Афанасьева. Лексикология английского языка. — М.
Изд. Дрофа. 1999

F.R.Palmer. Semantics. A new outline. — M. V.Sh. 1982

Roman invasion in Britain began in 43 A.D. Romans had held on the
country for 400 years (till 407 A.D.).

By a borrowing or loan-word we mean a word which came into the
vocabulary of one language from another and was assimilated by the new

Sc. “hus+bondi” means «inhabitant of the house».

Sc. “vindauga” means «the eye of the wind».

By the native element we mean words which were not borrowed from other
languages but represent the original stock of this particular language.

By etymology of words is understood their origin.

“Autumn” is a French borrowing.

Cognates — words of the same etymological root, of common origin.

By remnant suffixes are meant the ones that are only partially
preserved in the structure of the word: Lat. (-ctus) >Lat. (-ct).

The term “loan-word” is equivalent to “borrowing”.



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