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Remotivation. Folk etymology


The current pronunciation of such recently demotivated words as forehead and waistcoat, for example, has a tendency to spotlight their compound nature that the spelling of these words signals: [ f :hed] instead of [ f :rId], [weistc t] instead of [wesk t]. This process of reviving the connection between a word’s form and meaning that makes a demotivated word to be motivated again is called remotivation. Remotivation is not common in a language but it is a good proof that a language does not rush to get rid of motivation.


Motivation aids memory, especially when the connection between a word and its referent is not stable. That is why different social and age groups have different attitudes towards demotivated and non-motivated words. Small children and old people, as well as uneducated and linguistically gifted people very often slightly change the form and make such words motivated again, very often in a different way.


Remotivation of an uncommon done by pairing an incorrect word and concept is called folk etymology. Thus, shamefaced appeared from shamefast ‘fast, fixed in shame, constantly modest’. The last element of the word became associated with the more familiar ‘face’ and the notion ‘bashful’. An apron is the result of by incorrect division in ME of the word naperon diminutive of nape ‘cloth’ that came from MFr. The word an adder from OE a naddre appeared in ME exactly the same way.


It is borrowings that especially often undergo the process of folk etymology. So long, for example, came from the Arabic salaam , ‘peace’. An interesting example of folk motivation may present the word turkey, whichetymologists trace to Hebrew tukki ‘peacock’. When Spaniards in America sent Hebrew merchants the fowl, they mistook it for peacocks. So, a turkey does not have any connection with Turkey. We can say that the word has been remotivated. In Turkey, by the way, this bird is called ‘American bird’, which reflects its original habitat. Examples of folk etymology in Russian are спинджак, полуклиника, вармишель. (For more see remotivation in Minor Types of Word-formation, Chapter 5.)



Further reading:


Ульман, С. Семантические универсалии // Новое в лингвистике. Вып. 5.-М.: Прогресс, 1970. – С.250-299.

Труевцева О.Н. Английский язык: особенности номинации.— Л.: Наука, Ленинградское отделение, 1986.

Языковая номинация. Общие вопросы. – М.: Наука, 1977.

Языковая номинация. Вопросы номинации. – М.: Наука, 1977.

Aitchison, Jean. The seeds of speech: Language origin and evolution. – Cambridge: CUP, 1996.

Jackendoff, Ray. Semantics and Cognition. – Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993.

Posner, Michael I. Cognition: An Introduction. – Glenview: Scott Foresman, 1973.






A word never — well, hardly ever — shakes off its etymology and its formation. Inspite of all changes in and extension of and addition to its meaning, and indeed pervaiding and governing these, there will persist the old idea.

— J.L.Austin, ‘A Plea for Excuses’ in Philosophical Papers, 1961: 149.


English as a Germanic language. Native English words. Borrowings in English. Origin and source of borrowing. Loan and native words relation. Assimilation of borrowings. Etymological doublets. ‘Translator’s false friends’. International words.


Etymology [fr Gk etymon ‘true meaning’ + logos ‘word, learning’] studies the history of a linguistic form, especially of a word.


Knowledge of vocabulary development history, especially in a foreign language, makes a person a sophisticated learner, saves his/her time, energy and efforts in second language acquisition, extends his/her philological horizons and explains unusual spelling, pronunciation or usage of words. The easiest, quickest and most dynamic way to survey a lexicon is to give its etymological characteristics, though to study them is one of the most strenuous and toilsome jobs in linguistics.



English as a Germanic language


It is a well known fact that etymologically English is a Germanic language, the language of Western Germanic tribes of the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons who in the 5th century migrated across the English Channel and by about 700 gradually occupied most of what now is called England.


The first groups of Western Germanic tribes, mainlythe Jutes, arrived at the request of the Celtic leader Vortigern. Vortigern appealed to them to help repel attacks by the Picts and Scots – early inhabitants of the British Isles who lived mainly in the mountains of Scotland and Ireland. He needed help because after a 400-year presence on the British Isles the Roman army was called home from England to defend Rome from attacks by barbarians. This left native Celts without protection.


The Jutes came, defeated the Picts and Scots but then killed Vortigern and established their own rule. Later other Germanic tribes came from across the Channel, the Saxons and the Angles. Gradually the Angles became the dominant tribe and by the year 700, the island was called Angleland. By that time the Anglo-Saxon language became known as Englisck and later, by the year 1,000, as Anglish.


Because grammar is the most conservative component of language, modern English reveals many common features with grammars of other Germanic languages. But the English vocabulary vividly demonstrates its Anglo-Saxon roots, too.



Native English words


The core of Englisck that had formed by the 7th century was made up of words used in Anglo-Saxon.


Etymologically Anglo-Saxon words used by the conquering tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes are not homogeneous, however. Several layers may be distinguished within them.


Many Anglo-Saxon words can be traced to their common Indo-European roots (father, mother, brother, son, daughter, birch, cat, cold, one two, and three).


Quite a lot of Anglo-Saxon words had common Germanic roots (arm, bear, boat, finger, hand, head, say, see, white, winter)


Some words found in conquering Germanic tribes’ languages cannot be traced to any sources (like, for e.g. dog).


There were also borrowings, primarily continental Latin borrowings,that the the tribes of Jutes, Angles and Saxons acquired from the contacts with a higher civilization when they still lived on the continent (cup, cheese, butter, mill, line, ounce, pipe, pound, wine).


Words of Anglo-Saxon origin include most auxiliary and modal verbs (can, may, must, shall, will, etc), pronouns (I, you, he, my, and his), prepositions (in, out, on, and under), numerals (one, two, three, four and hundred), conjunctions (and, but, and till), and many important notional words, denoting parts of the body (head, hand, arm, back, footand heart), animals (cow, fish, goat, hen, horse, sheep,and swine), domestic life (door, floor, home, and house), natural phenomena (storm, summer, and winter, etc.), qualities (old, young, light, dark, silly, and nice, etc.), actions (come, see, hear, eat, buy, sell, and meet).


The first borrowings into the Anglo-Saxon language were words from the local Celtic people — the first migrants to England from central Europe, wandering tribes, who arrived in about 500 BC. Though the Britons, or Celts, were not all killed or driven out of their lands, they were a defeated people and their language had no prestige. Few of their words remain in English today: bog, glen, whiskey, bug, kick, creak, basket, dagger, lad. But many Celtic names for geographical places, like rivers (the Avon, the Esk, the Usk, the Thames, and the Severn), mountains and hills (Ben Nevis, from pen ‘a hill’), are still used. Celtic names also are preserved as the first elements in many city names (Winchester, Cirenchester, Clouchester, Salisbury, Lichfield,and Ikley) or the second elements in many villages (-cumbmeaning ‘deep valley’ still survives in Duncombe or Winchcombe).


The other group of borrowings in this early period of Old English is from Latin.Though the barbaric invaders — tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes — tried to annihilate all the remnants of Roman culture, they borrowed into their language via Celtic about 450 Latin words that were already in wide use in England. It’s 400-year occupation by Roman legions (port, street, mile,mountain, the element chester or caster, retained in many names of towns [from L castra ‘camp’]).


Insular borrowings from Celtic and Latin made up only about 3% of the vocabulary of Engelisck, or Old English.


So, the 7th century AD Old English consisted of words of common Indo-European and Germanic roots, as well as borrowings from Celtic, continental and early insular borrowings from Latin. All these words may be regarded as nativein contrast to later borrowings that came into the language along with great changes in the life of England’s people, and first of all, the conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. This caused the first really extensive wave of borrowings from Latin into English..

One should be also aware that there are different interpretations of the term ‘native’. Some scholars use the term ‘native’exclusively to refer to words of Anglo-Saxon origin. The term ‘native’ may also be understood as comprising words coined later on the basis of the ancient Anglo-Saxon words by means of various processes operative in English with the help of native elements (-er, -ness, -dom, -hood, -ship, -th,etc.).

Not all the words of that period have survived. About 85% of them are no longer in use. Yet, according to some estimates, about 50,000 Anglo-Saxon wordsremain in English today /Hughes 1988:4/.


Most of them have undergone fundamental changes in meaning, wif, for example, reminds modern wife, but in Old English it referred to any woman, married or not. Nevertheless they make up a great portion of the core of modern English vocabulary. These words are communicatively the most important in English, are most frequently used (80% of the 500 most frequent words, according to Thorndike and Lodge’s dictionary by are Anglo-Saxon), are usually monosyllabic, and are among the most important functional and semantic groups in the English vocabulary.


Borrowings in English


The most important changes in Englisck vocabulary that made Englisck a separate Germanic language happened after the 7th century. They were caused by a number of historical events that were followed by extensive borrowings into the native layer.


1. The conversion of the English to Christianity began in about the year 600 and was completed in the 7th century. As a result Latin and Greek words appeared such as altar, bishop, creed, devil, school, church, priest, disciple, psalm, temple, nun, etc.). It is interesting to note that native, pagan, Anglo-Saxon words like God, godspell, hlaford, and synn showed a strong resistance to loan words, though they were not related to Christianity.

2.Another change occurred when from the end of the 8th to the middle of the 11th century Swedes, Norwegians and Danes, known as Vikings that in their language Old Norse,a related Germanic language, meant ‘pirates’, invaded England. This period is known as the Danish invasion.


The Vikings came as ruthless warriors, but in their second generation in England they became craftsmen and farmers and intermarried with the Angelcynns. Examples of the words that Scandinavians contributed to modern English are: both, call, die, egg, fellow, flat, fog, gap, get, give, happy, happen, husband, ill, knife, law, leg, loan, low, odd, reindeer, take, they, their, them, tidings, ugly, want, weak, window, wrong, and sale. Some of them are still easy to recognize as they begin with sk-: ski, skin, sky, skill, skirt,and scrub. At least 1,400 localities in England have Scandinavian names (names with Scandinavian elements -beck ‘brook’, -by ‘village’, toft ‘a site for a dwelling and additional land’ are found in Askby, Selby, Westby, Brimtoft, and Nortoft).


3. The Norman conquest started with the lost battle near Hastings in 1066 and lasted for two hundred years. (The rulers of Normandy had originally been Scandinavian Vikings who occupied parts of northern France. By the middle of the 11th century, however, they had lost their Scandinavian language and spoke French).


After the conquest the native aristocracy were largely destroyed and French became the language of the upper class. It is interesting to note, however, that up to 1250, before the official end of the Norman invasion, no more than about one thousand French words had entered the language. Mostly they were words that lower classes acquired from the nobility (baron, noble, servant, messenger, feast, and story). Cooking terms are largely French: sauce, boil, fry, roast, toast, pastry, soup, and jelly. The outward parts of the body, save for face, and most of the better known inner organs were untouched by the Normans (arm, hand, finger, nose, eye, skin, heart, brain, lung, kidney, liver, bone). But vein, nerve, stomach, artery, tendon attest the foreign influence. O.Jespersen points out that the heaviest borrowing from French took place not immediately after the Conquest but between 1250 and 1400, during the period when English was reborn and French was felt a foreign language. “As the free tongue of independent men, English was more than willing to embrace French and take it to its heart” /Pei 1967:41/. On the whole many hundreds of words from French related to government, social and military order, arts, fashion, cuisine entered English: market, demand, enemy, arrest, army, soldier, navy, spy, battle, peace, royal, state, court, false, judge, justice, verdict, prison, parliament, government, art, painting, poet, chamber, labour, mansion, diamond, salon, mirror, scent, jewel, robe, coat, collar, curtain, and beef.


4. The Renaissance period(1500-1650)was marked by significant developments in science, art and culture, especially a revival of interest in ancient civilization. Many texts were translated into English from Latin, Greek, Italianand lots of words from these languages were introduced to English (allegro, anachronism, capacity, catastrophe, celebrate, chronology, confidence, contract, criterion, dogma, epic, expend, fertile, granite, laconic, museum, native, opera, piano, portico, soprano, sarcasm, and system).


5. More recent extensive cultural contacts between Great Britain and other English-speaking countries and major European and other states have contributed much to borrowings, though the frequency of borrowings into English considerably reduced. Many words are borrowed from French: flambeau,marmot, and parquet; from German: waltz, rucksack, kindergarten, Nazi, wolfram, and nickel; from Spanish(especially from American Spanish via American English): Hidalgo, parade, domino, buffalo, veranda; from Danish: deck, skipper, dock, yacht; from Hungarian: goulash; from Russian: kopeck, intelligentsia,pogrom, tsar, samovar, sable, and steppe; and other countries (fromChinese: tea, tycoon, fan tan;fromWest Indies: barbeque, hurricane, cannibal;from Eskimos: anorak, and others).


As in the case with native words, one should bear in mind that there are different interpretations of the term ‘borrowing in English’. It may be understood as:

1) the process and the result of the process of adopting by seventh-century Engelisck and later words, word combinations or morphemes from other languages (-able, -ment, parliament,and coup d'etat);

2) any word or word combination created in English on the basis of a foreign form:

a) translation-loans — words and expressions from the material available in the language after the patterns characteristic of the given language, but under the influence of foreign lexical units. Quite a lot of them have Germanic origins (superman [from G Ǖbermensch], lightning-war [from G Blitzkrieg], masterpiece [from G Meisterstück], homesickness [from G Heimweh], standpoint [from G Standpunkt]), summit conference [from G Gipfel Conference], though other languages contributed to this process too, for example, mother tongue [from L lingua materna], first dancer[from L prima balerina]; wall-paper [from Russ стенная газета]; the moment of truth [from Sp el momento de la verdad];

b) semantic borrowings — the appearance of a new word meaning due to the influence of the related word in a foreign language. For example, the meaning ‘a subdivision of an executive department’appeared in the English word bureauunder the influence of the related Russian word бюро as in‘Политическое бюро’. Or; on analogy with the Russian word товарищ used as the form of address in the former USSR and some other socialist (communist) countries, the related English word comrade acquired a new meaning ‘COMMUNIST;

c) words coined from Greek or Latin roots — the longest and usually most difficult words in the English vocabulary where alongside with well familiar photograph, telephone there are many special terms like otorhinolaryngology or sphygmomanometer. The longest word registered in English texts so far is nocalcalinocetaceoaluminosocupreovitriolic.


So, the English vocabulary is considered to have a mixed character because of the great number of borrowings from more than 80 languages all over the world. All in all, up to 70% of modern English vocabulary consists ofloans, or borrowed words, and only 30% of the words are native due to the specific conditions of English language development.


Speaking of borrowings, one should not confuse the terms ‘sourсe of borrowing’ and ‘origin of the word’. The term 'source of borrowing' is more important for understanding the form and meaning of the word than its origin because the borrowed word usually bears the sound and graphic form and semantic properties characteristic of the language from which they were borrowed. The word school, for example, is borrowed into English from Latin [schola], retains its meaning and spelling, but is of Greek origin. In Greek it had a rather different meaning ‘leasure, discussion, lecture, school’.


Native elements and borrowings in English can be summed up in the following table:


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