English Word Origins Explain a Lot 

Have you ever wondered why English has two or more words for so many ideas? Have you been frustrated by the different pronunciations for the same letters, or some of the strange letter or sound combinations possible in English? The history of English word origins explains a lot about the richness of its vocabulary, and also the confusion some words can cause.


Word Origins from Repeated Invasions

This video gives a great short explanation of the way English history explains the English language. It also suggests why words of different origins have different connotations-- different feelings. Even English speakers who don't know the background have strong feelings that certain words are "snobby" or that others are "low class"!  

(Incidentally, their example of "a hearty welcome" is common but not 'low class.' "A cordial reception" sounds formal and less genuine, even though the phrases' definitions are very similar.)

England has suffered through several major invasions in the last 2,000 years. In 44 A.D., the Romans invaded southern England, introducing Roman law and the Latin language to the Celtic peoples already living there. About 400 years later, the Roman empire crumbled, and Roman troops withdrew.

Over the next two centuries, England was overrun by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, Germanic tribes. Their languages blended to become Anglo-Saxon, thhen Old English, the basis of modern English. Within a few hundred years, the Anglo-Saxons faced new invaders: the Danes. They raided all along the English coast and established their own kingdoms, especially in the north. Many Danish words were added to Old English at that time.

Then in 1066 A.D. the French conquered England. French was the language of government and of the nobility for several hundred years. It greatly influenced the English language and gave us a second set of words for almost everything.

Synonyms from Old English & French (or Latin)

We have the words freedom (from Anglo-Saxon) and liberty (from French), understanding and comprehension, sight and vision, and so many more word pairs. Often the word with Anglo-Saxon roots is the more common, and the word with French (and Latin) origins is a little more formal or academic.

For example, we tend to use the verb ‘understand’ much more than comprehend.(Even more frequent in everyday speech is ‘get’, as in “I get it! You don’t need to keep explaining!” or “He just doesn’t get it,” meaning he doesn’t understand-- get the idea-- at all.)

However, we use the noun ‘comprehension,’ more often than ‘understanding' when we mean mental recognition of an idea. We talk about reading or listening comprehension. ‘Understanding’ adds the sense of an emotional as well as a mental grasp of what someone is saying. The adjective ‘comprehensive’ introduces a different thought. It doesn’t mean understandable, but complete or inclusive.

Hundreds of these pairs of synonyms from two word origins are recognized by almost all English-speakers, with both words used frequently.

Even though the Romans ruled much of England for 400 years, most of the Latin that has influenced English came later, either through French (which is a Romance language based on Latin) or from the language of the church during the Middle Ages. Then during the Renaissance, scholars all over Europe rediscovered the Greek and Latin classics and introduced many more words from both languages, especially into medical and academic language.

English Goes Worldwide

old sailing ships on the sea at sunset
old sailing ships on the sea at sunset

During the “Age of Discovery,” England was very interested in claiming a part of the New World and its riches. As the English encountered native Americans and other European colonists in the New World, introduced slaves with several African languages, and later expanded colonialism into Africa and Asia, English explorers and colonists freely adopted (and changed) useful words from many cultures.

Shakespeare lived during that exciting time when Renaissance scholarship, New World discoveries, and the invention of the printing press all contributed to a golden age of literature. At the same time, English nationalism and self-confidence multiplied after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries were fascinated with language and word play. Shakespeare invented over a thousand new words. He combined and recombined word parts and converted verbs or nouns into other parts of speech, making English even more flexible and expressive.

European (and later Asian) immigrants to the English-speaking New World countries (especially the U.S. and Canada), Australia, and New Zealand have also contributed to English word origins, further expanding its vocabulary and complicating its pronunciation and spelling.

One reason English spelling is so difficult is that it often keeps the spelling of the original language even when those letters are usually pronounced differently in English. For example, in the list below, yacht rhymes with 'hot' and the 'ch' is silent. Then there are words with 'ch' that come from Greek. They keep the hard 'k' sound of their Greek pronunciation: architect, character, charisma, etc., (pronounced ar-key-tect, kar-ac-ter, kar-is-ma). Even native English speakers have difficulty spelling or pronouncing many such words!

Here are a few of the many English words originating from other European languages:

  • >from Dutch: cole slaw, cookie, dam, and yacht,
  • >from German: frankfurter, hamburger, noodle, sauerkraut, and kindergarten,
  • >from Gaelic (language of the Irish): bog and whiskey,
  • >from Italian: pasta, pizza, spaghetti, piano, and umbrella, 
  • >from Spanish: barbeque, breeze, canyon, cargo, chocolate, embargo, mosquito, patio, ranch, and tomato,
  • >from Swedish: ombudsman and smorgasbord, and 
  • >from Yiddish (used by Jewish immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe): bagel, blintz, chutzpah, klutz, kosher, and lox.

Increasing trade, travel, and communication in the last century and a half has accelerated this process of adding useful words. Science and technology have provided the word origins for thousands more, as new inventions and discoveries require completely new expressions.

It’s also increasingly common to convert nouns (even proper names like Google or Kodak) to verbs or adjectives. We “message” a friend on a “cell” phone, or “google” a subject to find more information on the Internet. Photogenic events become “Kodak moments.” English is an inclusive language; there’s always room for more!

See also Greek Roots, 50 Word Roots from Latin, and other root and prefix pages listed on Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes.

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