Origins of the English Language

The English Language consists of four main groups of words:

Having an idea of the origin of a word helps with its spelling, vocabulary and meaning. Building up one's vocabulary helps in the understanding of English and makes for easier communication of one's ideas.

Old English or Anglo-Saxon

These are short words,
referring to everyday life, and
are often irregular in spelling.

e.g. sleep, wake, rise, eat, drink, walk, run, wander, work, hunt, earn, sow, reap, ride, bake, burn, worry, think, thought, wonder, thank, till, plough, seed, grow, harvest, look, see, go, fight, fought, day, month, year, moon, sun, rain, star.

Many of these words seem irregular in spelling, because

  1. they have been in use for centuries, and so are likely to have been changed
  2. sometimes the words were copied incorrectly and the misspelling remained
  3. so-called "strong" verbs changed their vowel when forming the past tense, e.g. swim and swam, think and thought, run and ran, e.g.
    I can swim a hundred metres but yesterday I swam only fifty.
    Do you fight with your brother? I fought with mine last night.
    I now ride my bike to school. Last year I rode my pony.

"Weak" verbs added -ed to form the past tense, e.g. I look after our garden. Before I grew up, my brother looked after it.

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Words based on Latin roots

These are longer words, usually of two or three chunks or syllables;
they relate to abstract nouns and feelings, and
are generally regular in spelling. Some are influenced by French.

A root word gives rise to many other words, just as the root of a plant can produce many stems or branches. It is the basis of other words.

e.g. From the Latin verb dico, dictum = speak, spoken, we find words like contradiction.
The meaning of the root word is changed by the affixes,
contra = against, opposite, and -ion, indicating a noun and suggesting an action or result of an action. So a contradiction may be described as a statement expressing the opposite (viewpoint).

Signs of Latin borrowings are a root word + an affix or affixes.

An affix is a syllable or group of letters fixed on to or attached to a root word. If they are added to the beginning of a word, they are called prefixes. If they are attached to the end of a word, they are called suffixes.

In the word contradiction, the prefix contra gives the word a different meaning from the root word 'to say' and the suffix -ion suggests that it is a noun.

Latin, the language of the Romans, first came to Great Britain in 55 BC when Julius Caesar subdued the inhabitants for a time. In the next few centuries Latin gradually became the language of the church through the introduction of Christianity by missionaries from Rome and Europe.

In 1066 when the French-speaking Normans under William the Conqueror invaded Britain, they followed the European practice of keeping records in Latin so that while both French and English were spoken, written English gave way to Latin, especially in legal and historical documents. This period no doubt saw English spelling greatly influenced by French.

After the introduction of the printing press by William Caxton in 1477, English gradually came to the fore again with the compiling of a Latin-English dictionary by Sir Thomas Elyot (c1490-1538), who wished to add many Latin words to English. Scholars and writers like Shakespeare (1564-1616) found English inadequate to express ideas and feelings and so added more words derived from Latin to English.

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Words based on Greek roots

These are similar to Latin roots in that the root usually comes from a verb form with affixes (prefixes and suffixes) added to it. Words are still being borrowed from Greek today to name new scientific, technical, and medical discoveries.

Greek contains letter combinations which do not occur in English. These make the borrowings easy to recognise but more difficult to spell without understanding the roots that contain them.

Signs of Greek borrowings are:
the letter ph as in telephone; ps as in psychic; rh as in rhyme, and the letter y in the middle of a word, where
an i might be expected in English, as in rhyme.

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Words borrowed from other languages

Due to the English skill in sailing, they acquired trading posts and colonies all round the world and began adopting words from many different peoples.

However, long before English was spoken in Britain, the land was inhabited by the Celts who probably came from Brittany in France. The Celts were conquered by the Romans between 58 BC and 78 AD and when the Romans left in about 400 AD, Britain was soon invaded by Germanic tribes such as Jutes, Angles and Saxons, and the already downtrodden Celts were pushed to the west into the area now called Wales. Very few Celtic words have come down into English. Among exceptions are crag (steep, rocky peak), tor (rocky hill or peak), London, Thames, and Avon (river).

'The Story of English' by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran (Third Revised Edition, Penguin Books, 2003) is an excellent source of the history of the English language, its origins and borrowings. William Cran was the executive producer for the TV series, 'The Story of English'.

Note: The focus of this website is on words derived from Latin and Greek roots rather than other borrowings.

Suggestions for learning vocabularies

Look for a word you know. Find its literal meaning. Then look for another word to learn using its literal meaning also. Don't try to cram. Let the brain ponder over the words so that they gradually sink in. Look out for these words in conversation and in books.

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