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Julia Cresswell on where our words come from

Julia Cresswell - photo writer author

Where our words come from

This is an edited version of part of the preface of the forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, published in October 2009. See also this review in the Independent.

It is well established that English has an unusually large vocabulary.  This is partly because its history has exposed it to an unusually large number of influences, and partly because the language has never been slow to borrow from any language it meets.  Although there are borrowings from many exotic languages, the majority of words in English have come from one of the large number of languages that belong to the Indo-European group, as English itself does.  This is the dominant family of languages in Europe and Western Asia, all of which are descended from a hypothetical language called proto-Indo-European.  Who the original Indo-Europeans were we do not know.  The majority of scholars would probably say that they were a people living somewhere in the region of the Black Sea approximately 6000 years ago, but views vary widely both as to when and where they lived.  What we do know is that their language spread, changing all the while.  How and why it spread are again hotly debated, but speakers of the language group spread as far East as western China, south into India and west as far as Ireland, before the languages were exported to other continents at a later date.

It may seem impossible that Irish, English, Greek, Iranian and Hindi are all related, but they are indeed all descended from proto-indo-European.  The secret behind discovering the links lies in the study of early forms of the languages and of the way in which sounds change in language, combined with careful comparison of the languages.  Of these, the most important for our purposes is sound change.  The way that a language is pronounced is constantly changing, although we may not be aware of it.  Nowadays we are lucky, because we have sound recordings stretching back over 100 years, and can hear for ourselves how odd someone speaking only fifty years ago sounds today.  We are so used to the idea of a standard written language that it is easy to forget how much variation there is in the sounds of the spoken English we hear today.  Those who want to check this out for themselves will find the British Library website has an excellent collection of recordings. The brain has an extraordinary ability to recognise the same words in the widely different sounds of English spoken, say, in Bombay, Melbourne, Alabama and Glasgow.  Over time which of these varying sounds becomes the generally accepted one varies. This is the key to one of the ways sounds in speech change – there is constant variety all around us, but we can usually ignore it. If what we think of as the standard form changes, it can eventually lead to a change in the written form. Speakers of English English can hear for themselves how this process works.  One of the changes that is taking place in English at the moment is a change in the sound written ‘th’.  ‘Th’ is actually the symbol for two closely related sounds – that in think and that in bothered.  More and more people are pronouncing the first of these fink and the second bovvered.  This is not a sudden change.  It was recorded in London in the 19th century, spread slowly through the twentieth, but became much more common in the last quarter of that century.  It is possible that in the future it will become the dominant form (although not inevitable) and then a sound change will have happened.  Although on paper the change from ‘th’ to ‘v’ or ‘f’ may seem great, in fact, if you say the sounds you will find that the only significant difference is the position of the lower lip, and the resulting slight change in the position of the tongue.  This is an important point; sound changes are not arbitrary, but go to a sound made in a neighbouring part of the mouth.

By comparing old written forms of the language we are able to reconstruct what changes have taken place in the past and so establish the relationships between Indo-European languages.  This enables us to show, for instance, that Germanic languages (including English) and Latin once shared a common ancestor, and that our word ‘tooth’ and the Latin word behind ‘dentist’ were once the same.  By comparing all the available vocabulary it was possible to establish the rules of how different sounds correspond in the two languages, and it was found that d regularly appears as t in English, and Latin t regularly appears as th.  Thus Latin dentem (which gives us dentist) corresponds to tooth in English.  Likewise, since Latin p regularly appears as f, pedem, Latin for foot, and source of pedestrian, appears as foot in English.  Working in this way, it has been possible to establish the relationships between the surviving languages, and go some way towards reconstructing lost ones.

Modern English emerges from this history with a vastly enriched vocabulary because it is a blend of more than one branch of the Indo-European family.  The basic structure and the vocabulary of the language belongs to the Germanic branch, the family of languages spoken throughout north-west Europe. This was introduced to the British Isles when the Anglo-Saxons became the dominant group after the Romans left in the 5th century.  Even then, the Anglo-Saxon language, known as Old English, was already a mixture of different dialects as different tribes settled different areas leading to regional variations which can still be traced in the language today.  From the end of the eight century the British isles were subject to increasingly frequent Viking raids which lead to large tracts of the country being settled by Scandinavian speakers of Old Norse, and eventually, in Canute, to a Scandinavian ruler.  These invasions had a profound influence on the language, adding to the vocabulary providing both basic words such as ‘she’ and enriching the stock of words by duplicating vocabulary.  For instance, shirt and skirt are basically the same Germanic word, but because they are both available they can be used much more precisely that the original one word, which seems to have been a catch-all term for a long garment.

After the Scandinavians, their relatives who had settled in France invaded in 1066.  Norman is simply a form of ‘North man’ or Viking, but the Scandinavians who had settled in Normandy had largely abandoned their Germanic language and adopted the local form of French.  This belonged to a different branch of the Indo-European family, the Romance languages that developed from the language of Rome, Latin.  With the Norman conquest Old English, which had had a flourishing and sophisticated literature, largely disappears from the written record for a couple of generations, to be replaced by Latin and French, and became the language of the uneducated, a situation which tends to lead to rapid change.  When the language re-emerged, it had changed into Middle English and acquired large elements of French and Latin vocabulary.  Most of the Old English words were still there, although often in much more restricted senses, but people were able to express themselves much more precisely.  Throughout the Middle Ages the vocabulary continued to expand, mainly with Latin-based words, for Latin was the language of learning into the 17th and 18th centuries, but also with words adopted from classical Greek and from trade relationship, particularly with the Dutch.  By about 1500 the language had become Early Modern English, but since these changes are largely to do with the structure of the language rather than vocabulary, they need not concern us.  Much the same process has continued up until modern times.  Latin and Greek continued to be important sources of new words, particularly in the sciences, and changing and expanding trade had brought words into the language from an ever-widening pool of other languages.

The importance of Latin as a source means that it is necessary to consider some of the peculiarities of the language.  Latin is an inflected language – that is to say that the relationship between words is mainly indicated by the endings.  Old English had been inflected, but in modern English most of the inflections have been lost, although we still put an ‘s’ on the end of words to show they are plural, and in verbs the ‘s’ that distinguishes ‘he eats’ from ‘I eat’ still survives.  Instead we rely on word order: ‘Man bites dog’ is very different from ‘Dog bites man’.  In Latin the three words could be in any order, and the ending of the words would show who was the biter and who bitten. Another peculiarity of Latin is that the middle of the word often adds or changes sounds from the basic form (the stem) in the inflected form.  Thus ‘the king’ is rex, but ‘of the king’ is regis.  This makes the language hard work for those learning it at school, but gave little trouble to the native speakers, any more than we have problems recognising that ‘won’t’ is the same as ‘will not’. There are always good historical reasons for these sound changes, if you know where to look.  In the case of rex and regis the difference is mainly one of spelling.  If you spell rex regs, you can tell that the ‘x’ rather than ‘g’ is simply a running together of the two final sounds.  Where this affects us, is that words in English and other languages tend to be taken from the inflected forms of the Latin.  In the case of the rex, we use the word ‘regal’ for kingly, incorporating the ‘g’ of the inflected form.  In the example above of the relationship between the Latin and English words for ‘foot’ it was necessary to cheat, for the basic form of foot in Latin is pes, the ‘d’ only appears in the inflected forms.  This means that it can be rather confusing to look us a Latin word and find it is missing many of the letters in its English derivative.  However, a good dictionary should list both the root form and the inflected form in its etymologies.

If you are interested in exploring the history of words further, the full version of the Oxford English Dictionary in available on-line.  It is a subscription service, but in the UK at least, it available free to library card holders via their country library services web pages.  In the Oxford English Dictionary the history of each word is examined in exhaustive detail, with the contents updated 4 times a year.  For a lighter treatment of word histories World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org) is a fun read and has an excellent list of links to other language web pages.

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