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Where do Words Come From? (2)

Borrowed Words

The English and English-speaking nations have very aggressively explored the world, set up empires on foreign soil, and traded around the globe. This contact with foreign cultures has resulted in the importation or borrowing of thousands of words from those languages into English. Settling North America brought English-speaking people in contact with the native Americans already residing there. In England, the age-old identification with classical cultural traditions led to the adoption of a "classical" education system for centuries, an education system that inculcated Latin and Greek languages from an early age. Although little is left of that education system now, the effect of it has been the importation of thousands of words from these languages. In fact, medical and legal vocabulary can easily be derived from Latin and Greek roots to this day.

Let us begin our exploration of words borrowed into English with an examination of the impact of Latin and Greek.

Latin and Greek Roots

Latin and Greek belong to the same family as Proto-Germanic, a family that developed from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This is the earliest language about which we have any knowledge from which European languages (and those of India) developed. Here is a chronology of PIE with a map showing how the dialects of PIE spread farther and farther apart. As they drifted apart, they developed into dialects which became distinct languages. These languages then split into dialects, then language, making them language families like the Germanic and Romance (Latin) families. As the languages of these families split into dialects, then languages, we finally arrive at the languages we have in most of India and Europe (hence "Indo-European") today.

Even though Latin and Greek developed into the Romance languages and Modern Greek, respectively, their literature continued to have a profound effect on the peoples of Europe. All of the modern languages borrow words and stems from both languages. Borrowing is another source of words. Here are some of the words and roots borrowed into English from Latin words.

Latin Roots in English
Latin Root Meaning English
ann-us ring, year annular, annual, annuity
aqua water aquatic, aquarium, aqua
audi-o (I) hear audition, auditory, audio
bell-um war belligerent, ante bellum
bene well benefit, benevolent
cent-um hundred century, percent, cent
dic-o (I) say dictate, diction, edict
fer-o (I) carry ferry, transfer, refer
fin-is end, limit finish, finite, define
ign-is fire ignite, igneous, ignition
liber free liberate, liberal, liberty
loc-us place local, locate, locale
magn-us big magnitude, magnify
major bigger major, majority
maxim-us biggest maximal, maximize, Maxim
mal-us bad malice, malady, malicious
man-us hand manual, manipulate
mar-e sea, ocean (sub)marine, maritime
minor smaller, less minor, minority
minim-us smallest, very small minimum, miniature, mini-
mult-us many multiple, multiply, multi-
pe(d)s foot pedestrian, pedal
port-o (I) carry export, porter, portable
voc-o (I) call vocal, revoke, vocation

English has not borrowed as extensively from Greek as it has from Latin; however, there are still thousands of words borrowed from Greek or based on Greek roots. Greek is a particularly rich source of medical terms. Take a look at the following list to get an idea of the role Greek words and roots play in the English language.

Greek Roots in English
Greek Root Meaning English
aer air aerosol, aerobic, aeronautics
arkhai-os old archeology, archaic
auto self automobile, autograph, automatic
bi-os life biography, bionic, biology
chron-os time chronicle, chronological
krat-os power, rule bureaucrat, autocrat, democrat
dem-os people democracy, demography
ge earth geography, geology,
graph-o (I) write, draw autograph, epigraph, photograph
hydor water hydrant, hydrophobia, hydrogen
hyper over, beyond hyperactive, hyperventilate, hypercritical
mania madness mania, maniac, kleptomania
metr-on measure meter, odometer, altimeter
mikr-os small, little microbe, microchip
mon-os alone, only monopoly, monochrome, monoxide
path-e suffering psychopath, pathology
phil-os fondness; friend philosophy, anglophile, Philadelphia
phon-e sound, speech telephone, phonics, microphone
pol-is city, nation metropolis, police, politics
pol-ys many polygon, polytechnical, polychrome
scop-eo watch, look microscope, telescope, stethoscope
syn, sym with synthesis, sympathy, symphony
tele afar, distant television, telephone, telescope
tri-a three trident, tripod, triple

Not all of these words were borrowed directly from Greek; some were borrowed from French who borrowed them from Greek. The important point is that the meanings of these words are what they are because of the original meanings of the Greek roots in them. Those roots are still being used today by doctors and others to create new English words.

Now you pick the meanings of some borrowed roots.
Now see if you can figure out the meanings of the roots in the words in the table below. They have all been borrowed, directly or indirectly (via French), from Greek and Latin. Think about the idea that the meanings of all the examples share in common and type it in the spaces under "Meaning". Then push the buttons to see how well you did.

Meanings of Greek and Latin Roots in English Words
Examples Meaning Check Correct?
scribe, inscribe, scribble, scripture
temporal, temporary, contemporary
solar, solarium, solstice
cardinal, cardiac, cordial, accord
vision, visa, invisible, television
dental, dentist, dentifrice, dentate
octopus, octagon, octette, October
population, popular, populous

How did you do? It isn't so difficult when you put your mind to it. Of course, you can also check the online dictionaries that include etymologies.

Words from Other Languages

Although English owes its greatest lexical debt to Greek and Latin, it has borrowed generously from other languages as well: Scandinavian, Hindi, Yiddish, various East European languages and, of course, North American native languages. For example, the long colonial rule of the British in India not only developed the British palate for tea, it resulted in the import of many words from Hindi and the other languages of India, such as:

  • cummerbund
  • punch
  • shampoo
  • thug

Arabic has contributed several words to English, usually via French or Spanish either from the Moorish period of Spanish history or the period of French colonialism.

  • algebra
  • alcohol
  • assassin (from a word meaning "hashish addict")
  • mosque (via Middle French mosquee, through Old Italian moschea, and Old Spanish mezquita, but originally from Arabic masjid)
  • orange (an orange from the original a narange, via French)

The Slavic nations (Russia, Czech Republic, Poland, etc.) have also made a contribution through the millions of immigrants to the English-speaking nations from that part of Europe. Here are a few:

  • commissar (Russia for "Commissioner"-from the Soviet Period)
  • chernozem (dark soil)
  • polka (Polish word for "Pole".
  • robot (From Karel Capek's play "R. U. R.", based on the Slavic word robota "work" or "slave labor".
  • stroganoff (as in "Beef Stroganoff", named for the family of the developer of Siberia. )
  • troika (Russian for "threesome")
  • tsar (Russian realization of "Caesar")
  • vodka (Russian for "vodka", literally, "little water")

Word borrowings for Yiddish are not widely used but they are common in the dialects around New York city. A few of them are:

  • knish (a meat-filled pastry)
  • kvetch (from kvetshn, literally, "to squeeze, pinch")
  • -nik (as in peacenik, a suffix meaning "-er, -ist")
  • schlep (from shlepn "drag, haul")

English has also borrowed from Italian, especially musical and culinary terms. The English-speaking peoples have a special place on their menus for Italian food, so much so that words like "spaghetti" and "macaroni" seem like native words now. The same is true of "piano", "cello", and "maestro". Remember, the following words were all taken from the Italian language.

  • bimbo ("baby"-masculine!)
  • broccoli ("little nail")
  • violoncello (a small violone, which is a large viola)
  • opera ("work"
  • macaroni (Italian maccarone "dumpling")
  • maestro ("master")
  • minestrone ("big soup")
  • pasta ("dough, pastry")
  • piano ("soft")
  • pizza
  • spaghetti

In the 9th century, England was invaded three times by the Norsemen (Vikings). The Norse spoke a Germanic language related to English but by that time notably different. Over much of the 9th century many Norse words entered the English language including the following.

anger egg raise score
cake fellow root sky
call flat ski they
get their low window
his husband ugly wing

Not all words borrowed from Norwegian supplanted native English words. Often the English and the Norwegian words took on distinct meanings.

Norse English
anger wrath
nay no
fro from
raise rear
ill sick
bask bathe
skill craft
skin hide
dike ditch
skirt shirt
scatter shatter
skip shift

When the French invaded England under William the Conqueror in 1066 they initiated 200 years of not only political domination but linguistic domination. The French language became the elite language for more than two centuries and the impact of that domination on the English language was monumental. Roughly half the words in Modern English are borrowed from French. It is now easier for an English-speaker to learn French and other Romance languages like Italian and Spanish, than to learn languages in its own historical family, like German and Dutch.

It would be impossible to list here even a representative sampling of the words borrowed from French into English. The come from every semantic field: politics (tax, revenue, government, parliament, royal, slave, prince, prayer), religion (sermon, religion, chaplain, priest), law (judge, defendant, jury, evidence, jail, crime), medicine (medicine, physician, pharmacy, doctor, hospital), art (art, sculpture, fashion), literature (literature, poetry, story, history, verse), music (ballet and all its terminology, music, chamber, ensemble, voice, instrument), and many others. No language has had the tremendous impact on the English vocabulary that French has.

Of course, the settlers in the "New World" brought names for things with them from the Old World but there were so many places, animals, plants, and geographical phenomena unrelated to anything in Europe to name, they inevitably had to rely on the native languages of North America, Australia, and New Zealand for many words. The worlds of the Huron, Iroquois, Penobscot, Delaware, Seminole, Maori, and the native peoples of Australia were not new and they had already named everything everything in it several ways.

Many new places were named after old places: New York, New Jersey, New Zealand, New South Wales or after new settlers: Houston, Austin, Washington, Sidney, Durban. But many native American names were left in place: Canberra, Dakota, Ohio, Mississippi, Susquehanna, Alabama, Ottawa, Quebec, Saskatchewan, not to mention billabong, an Australian word meaning "an ox-bow river or watering hole".

The flora and fauna in the new worlds of the English presented rather a different problem: there were no potatoes, tobacco, opossums, dingoes and kangaroo back in Europe. For that reason many of the words lent to English by indigenous populations referred to animals (opossum, budgerigar, bungarra (edible lizard), koala, coyote (coyotl), kangaroo, chipmunk, muskrat) and vegetation (potato, chili, tobacco, kauri (pine).

Continue to Part 3 >