Dr. Goodword's Office

Where Do Words Come From?

Historical Development

Ordinarily we pay little attention to the words we speak. We concentrate instead on the meaning we intend to express and are seldom conscious of how we express that meaning. Only if we make a mistake and have to correct it or have difficulty remembering a word do we become conscious of our words. This means that most of us don't know where the words we use come from and how they come to have the meanings they do. Since words play such an important role in our lives, making our life easy or difficult depending on which words we choose on a given occasion, exploring their nature and origin should provide an interesting adventure.
English words come from several different sources. They develop naturally over the course of centuries from ancestral languages, they are also borrowed from other languages, and we create many of them by various means of word formation. Each of these sources have made a material impact on the vocabulary available to us today. Let's take a look at all three in order.

Native Words

First of all, it is important to know that languages may be related just like people. You have probably noticed that people from England, Brooklyn, and North Carolina all speak differently. They pronounce the same words differently and they even use different words for the same meaning. The English call the "hood" of a car the "bonnet" and the people in Brooklyn "schlep" things around while people in North Carolina "tote" them.
These differences make up what are called dialects and the people in England speak one of several British dialects, the people in Brooklyn speak a Brooklyn dialect, and those in North Carolina speak a Southern dialect. Dialects are variants of a language, variants with slightly different pronunciation, different grammatical rules, and slightly different vocabularies. The interesting thing about dialects is that as they continue to develop over time, the differences become greater and greater until people from one dialect area cannot understand those from another. When this happens, the people from the different dialect areas are speaking different languages.
Languages are not stagnant; they don't remain the same forever. They are constantly developing and changing. If one dialect group loses contact with people in another, the two groups are likely to develop into mutually unintelligible languages. At one time, for example, around 1,000 B.C.E., there was a single language that we call Proto-Germanic. Everyone speaking it could understand each other. But dialects emerged, the people speaking them dispersed in different directions so that the dialects developed into languages that are today called Danish, Dutch, English, Faroese, German, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish. These are then sister languages and Proto-Germanic is the mother language. (All languages come from from one-parent families.)
Obviously words changed as these languages developed from their ancestors. So the core words in English today developed from Proto-Germanic (via Old English, Middle English, into Modern English). These Germanic words include such words as "get", "burn", "ring", "house", "dog", "think". These words have cognates in other Germanic languages; that is, words that share the same origin. English "house", Danish "hus", and German "Haus" are cognates; so are "think" and German and Dutch "denk-en".
So these words are the results of 3,000 years of development in different dialects of what was originally a single language. Notice some of the rules that linguists look for: the "s" in German often corresponds to "t" in English (Fuss, Wasser), while the "th" in English often corresponds to "d" or "t" in German: (Mutter). The "ch" in German and the "k" in English seem to be related, too (Milch, machen). These parallels in many words demonstrate that the languages are related. (Also notice that vowels are much more likely to change than consonants. Even the changed consonants here are very similar to each other linguistically.)
Now see how many mutual cognates in English and German you can find.
German Cognates in English
German Meaning English Cognate Check Correct?
Feder bird covering
Hund canine animal
Milch white baby food
Brennen to consume by fire
Haar head fluff
Blut red body liquid
Fuss lower body part
Mutter female parent
Machen create something
Wasser basic liquid
Continue to Part Two >

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