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The Etymological Structure of English Vocabulary


The native element1 The borrowed element
  I. Indo-European element II. Germanic element     III. English Proper element (no earlier than 5th c. A. D.)       I. Celtic (5th — 6th c. A. D.)   II. Latin 1st group: 1st c. B. C. 2nd group: 7th c. A. D. 3rd group: the Renaissance period   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 table requires some explanation. Firstly, it should be pointed out that not only does the second column contain more groups, but it also implies a greater 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: one would certainly expect the native element to prevail. This anomaly is explained by the country's eventful history and by its many international contacts.

On a straight vocabulary count, 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 relative frequency of occurrence of words, and it is under this heading that the native Anglo-Saxon heritage comes into its own. 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, etc.).

Furthermore, the grammatical structure is essentially Germanic having remained unaffected by foreign influence.

It is probably of some interest to mention that at various times purists have tried to purge the English language of foreign words, replacing them with Anglo-Saxon ones. One slogan created by these linguistic nationalists was: " Avoid Latin derivatives; use brief, terse Anglo-Saxon monosyllables". The irony is that the only Anglo-Saxon word in the entire slogan is " Anglo-Saxon". [31]

Now let us turn to the first column of the table representing the native element, the original stock of the English vocabulary. The column consists of three groups, only the third being dated: the words of this group appeared in the English vocabulary in the 5th c. or later, that is, after the Germanic tribes migrated to the British Isles. As to the Indo-European and Germanic groups, they are so old that they cannot be dated. It was mentioned in the historical survey opening this chapter that 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. English words of this group denote elementary concepts without which no human communication would be possible. The following groups can be identified.1


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

II. Parts of the human body: foot (cf. R. пядь), nose, lip, heart.

III. Animals: cow, swine, goose.

IV. Plants: tree, birch (cf. R. береза}, corn (cf. R. зерно).

V. Time of day: day, night.

VI. Heavenly bodies: sun, moon, star.

VII. Numerous adjectives: red (cf. Ukr. рудий, R. рыжий), new, glad (cf. R. гладкий), sad, (cf. R. сыт). VIII. The numerals from one to a hundred.

IX. Pronouns — personal (except they which is a Scandinavian borrowing); demonstrative.

X. Numerous verbs: be (cf. R. быть), stand (cf. R. стоять), sit (cf. R. сидеть), eat (cf. R. есть), know (cf. R. знать, знаю).

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.

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

II. Animals: bear, fox, calf.

III. Plants: oak, fir, grass.

IV. Natural phenomena: rain, frost.

V. Seasons of the year: winter, spring, summer.1

VI. Landscape features: sea, land.

VII. Human dwellings and furniture: house, room, bench.

VIII. Sea-going vessels: boat, ship.

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

X. Verbs: see, hear, speak, tell, say, answer, make, give, drink.


* * *


It has been mentioned that the English proper element is, in certain respects, opposed to the first two groups. Not only can it be approximately dated, but these words have another distinctive feature: they are specifically English having no cognates2 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.

Sad: Germ. satt, Lat. satis, R. сыт, Snscr. sa-.

Stand: Germ. stehen, Lat. stare, R. стоять, Snscr. stha-.

Here are some examples of English proper words. These words stand quite alone in the vocabulary system of Indo-European languages: bird, boy, girl, lord, lady, woman, daisy, always.

Of course, one might remark that Russian vocabulary also has the words лорд, леди, бой (in the meaning of " native servant" ). The explanation is simple: these words have been borrowed by Russian from English and therefore are not cognates of their English counterparts.

It should be taken into consideration that the English proper element also contains all the later formations, that is, words which were made after the 5th century according to English word-building patterns (see Ch. 5, 6) both from native and borrowed morphemes. For instance, the adjective 'beautiful' built from the French borrowed root and the native suffix belongs to the English proper element. It is natural, that the quantity of such words is immense.



I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. How can you account for the fact that English vocabulary contains such an immense number of words of foreign origin?

2. What is the earliest group of English borrowings? Date it.

3. What Celtic borrowings are there in English? Date them.

4. Which words were introduced into English vocabulary during the period of Christianization?

5. What are the characteristic features of Scandinavian borrowings?

6. When and under what circumstances did England become a bilingual country? What imprint features were left in English vocabulary by this period?

7. What are the characteristic features of words borrowed into English during the Renaissance?

8. What suffixes and prefixes can help you to recognize words of Latin and French origin?

9. What is meant by the native element of English vocabulary?

II. Subdivide all the following words of native origin into:

a) Indo-european, b) Germanic, c) English proper.


Daughter, woman, room, land, cow, moon, sea, red, spring, three, I, lady, always, goose, bear, fox, lord, tree, nose, birch, grey, old, glad, daisy, heart, hand, night» to eat, to see, to make.


III. Read the following jokes. Explain the etymology of the italicized words. If necessary consult a dictionary.1


1. He dropped around to the girl's house and as he ran up the steps he was confronted by her little brother.

" Hi, Billy."

" Hi, " said the brat.

" Is your sister expecting me? "

" Yeah."

" How do you know that? "

" She's gone out."


2. A man was at a theatre. He was sitting behind two women whose continuous chatter became more than he could bear. Leaning forward, he tapped one of them on the shoulder.

" Pardon me, madam, " he said, " but I can't hear" .

" You are not supposed to — this is a private conversation, " she hit back.


3. Sonny: Father, what do they make asphalt roads of?

Father: That makes a thousand question you've asked today. Do give me a little peace. What do you think would happen if I had asked my father so many questions?

Sonny: You might have learnt how to answer some of mine.


IV. Identify the period of the following Latin borrowings; point out the structural and semantic peculiarities of the words from each period.


Wall, cheese, intelligent, candle, major, moderate, priest, school, street, cherry, music, phenomenon, nun, kitchen, plum, pear, pepper, datum, cup, status, wine, philosophy, method.



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