The Etymology of English Words

Lecture № 1.

Lexicology (Fundamentals)


1. Lexicology as a branch of linguistics.

2.Word as the basic lexical unit of language.


1. Антрушина Г.Б., Афанасьева О.В., Морозова Н.Н. Лексикология английского языка: Учеб. пособие для студентов. – М.: Дрофа, 1999. – 288 с.

2. Арнольд И.В. Лексикология современного английского языка: Учеб. для ин-тов и фак. иностр. яз. – М.: ВШ, 1986. – 295 с.

3. Гвишиани Н.Б. Современный английский язык: Лексикология (новый курс для филологических факультетов университетов). – М.: МГУ, 2000. – 221 с.

4. Дубенец Э.М. Современный английский язык. Лексикология: Пособие для студентов гуманитарных вузов. – М. / СПб.: ГЛОССА / КАРО, 2004. – 192 с.


1. Lexicology as a branch of linguistics.

The term ‘lexicology’ is of Greek origin, from lexis – word and logos – science. Lexicology is the part of linguistics which deals with the vocabulary and characteristic features of words. Its basic task is a systematic description of the vocabulary of some particular language in respect to its origin, development and current use.

Lexicology presents a wide area of knowledge and includes the following branches: a) historical lexicology or etymology. Historical lexicology or etymology studies the development of the vocabulary, the origin of words and word-groups, their semantic relations and the development of their sound forms and meaning.

b) descriptive lexicology. Descriptive lexicology studies the vocabulary at a definite stage of its development.

c) semantic or semasiology. Semantic or semasiology specialises in the studies of the meaning of words.

d) comparative or contrastive lexicology. Comparative or contrastive lexicology establishes facts of similarities and differences between languages.

e) applied lexicology. Applied lexicology covers terminology, lexicography, translation, linguodidactics.

It is also possible to speak about general lexicology and special lexicology. General lexicology studies words irrespective of the specific features of any particular language. Special lexicology devotes its attention to the description of the characteristic peculiarities in the vocabulary of a given language. So, lexicology of the English language is special lexicology. Every special lexicology is based on the principles of general lexicology. General lexicology is at the very beginning of its formation yet.

Lexicology connects with phonetics, stylistics and grammar. The ties between lexicology and phonetics are based on the assumption that a word is a combination of a group of sounds with a meaning. So, window is one word and widow is another. Discrimination between words may be based upon stress: import is a noun and import ia a verb.

Meaning is necessary to phonemic analysis. To establish the phonemic difference between [ou] and [o] it is sufficient to know that hope means something different from hop.

Many problems treated in lexicology are studied in stylistics but from a different angle. These are problems of meaning, connotations, synonymy, functional differentiation of vocabulary.

Lexicology is connected with grammar. Each word belongs to some part of speech and have lexico-grammatical characteristics of this part of speech. Words seldom occur in isolation. They are arranged in some patterns. So, alongside with their lexical meaning they possess grammatical meaning. For example: I am going is different from I am going to do. Verbs when used with human nouns and with object nouns may change their meanings. For example: The girls gave him a strange smile and The new teeth gave him a strange smile. The ties between lexicology and grammar are very strong in the field of word-formation. Many linguists consider word-formation a part of grammar not lexicology.

Lexicology as a linguistic discipline was introduced in works by V.V. Vinogradov, G.O. Vinokur, L.V. Scherba, A.I. Smirnitsky, O.S. Ahmanova and others.

No corresponding discipline is officially distinguished in Western European or American linguistics. A prominent linguist Uriel Weinreich once wrote: ‘To an American observer, the strangest thing about Soviet lexicology is that it exist’. Another well-known British lexicographer says: ‘...over the last thirty years, vocabulary and vocabulary teaching have been unduly neglected by linguists, applied linguists and language teachers alike. This may well be true of Western Europe and the United States where, as they argue, the dominance of syntactic models of language has, until recently, relegated the study of vocabulary to the periphery of linguistic scholarship. This criticism is, however, demonstrably not applicable to the study of language in the Soviet Union, where lexicography in general, and pedagogical lexicography, in particular, has never ceased to be a major subject of interest to Soviet linguists and language teachers’.

2. Word as the basic lexical unit.

 The main unit of the lexical system of a language is a word. The word is used for the purposes of human communication. Everybody knows that when people are travelling they do not carry grammar books with them, they carry dictionaries. In conversations a word can hurt, excite, decide a case, lead to conflicts.

The word materially represents a group of sounds: wall – well, cat – court, house – mouse.

The word can be used in different grammatical forms Remember, for example the following proverb: Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.

The word is the smallest unit of a language which can stand alone as a sentence, for example: Go! Stop!

 The word possesses a structure. We must distinguish between the external and the internal structures of the word. The external structure of the word is its morphological structure. For example, in the word post-impressionists there are the following morphemes: the prefixes post-, im-, the root press, the suffixes -ion, -ist,-s. All these morphemes constitute the external structure of the word post-impressionists. The internal structure of the word is its meaning or its semantic structure.

The word possesses unity: both external and semantic unity. The external unity of the word is also called the formal unity. The formal unity of the word can be illustrated by comparing a word and a word-group with identical constituents, for example the word blackbird and the word-group black bird. We say that the word blackbird is characterized by the formal unity because grammatically this word changes as a whole thing: blackbird – blackbirds , not as blacksbirds. In the word-group a black bird each constituent can have its own grammatical forms: the blackest birds I have ever seen. Or we may introduce other words between the components of the word-group: a black night bird. So, the word-group black bird has no formal unity.

The semantic unity of the word may be shown with the help of the same word blackbird and the same word-group black bird. The word blackbird conveys only one concept: the type of bird. In the word-group black bird each component conveys a separate concept: bird – a kind of living creature, black – a colour.

So, the word may be defined as the basic lexical unit used for the purposes of human communication, materially representing a group of sounds, possessing a meaning, grammatically changeable and characterized by formal and semantic unity.

The term word is not a well-established element in the British linguistic tradition. British scientists such as D. Crystal and M.A.K. Halliday agree that intuitively all speakers know what is meant by a word, all speakers recognise words. But as a term it is extremely vague. Therefore British scientists suggest that the term word should be replaced by the terms lexical item, lexeme. The term lexical item has three meanings:

1. lexical item (лексема) is a unit conventionally listed in dictionaries as a separate entry. For example: such pairs as discover – discovery, announce – announcement are the same lexical items.

2. lexical item (cложный эквивалент слова). Many lexical items are words but some of them are not. For example: turn off is one item but two words.

3. lexical item (знаменательное слово). Sentences consist of words. Some of them are lexical items and some are grammatical items. For example: in the sentence We are at the lecture there are lexical items We, lecture and grammatical items are, at, the.

     It follows that lexical item is a broader term than word. When we speak about a lexical item and a word we speak about different things.

Other lexical units of language.

The basic unit of the vocabulary is a word. Other units are morphemes and word groups.

Morphemes are parts of words into which words may be divided. Word groups are groups of words into which words are combined. Unlike words morphemes cannot be divided into smaller meaningful elements. They function only as parts of words. The meaning of morphemes is rather abstract and general. Morphemes are less autonomous than words. Though many American linguists such as Ch. Hockett, Z. Harris regard a morpheme not a word as the main unit of the vocabulary. They segment utterance into morphemes ignoring words.

Word groups are ready-made combinations of words with a specialized meaning of the whole that is not a sum total of the meanings of the elements. For example: lady-killer – дамский угодник, to cut smb down to size – сбить спесь с кого-либо, поставить на место.

Discussing the problem of lexical units one should remember that the boundaries separating words, morphemes and word groups are fluid. The vocabulary of a language is constantly changing.


Lecture # 2

The Etymology of English Words


1. Native words vs. borrowings.

2. Classification of borrowings according to the borrowed aspects.

3. Classification of borrowings according to the degree of assimilation.

4. Classification of borrowings according to the language from which they were borrowed.

5. Etymological doublets.

6. International words.



5. Антрушина Г.Б., Афанасьева О.В., Морозова Н.Н. Лексикология английского языка: Учеб. пособие для студентов. – М.: Дрофа, 1999. – 288 с.

6. Арнольд И.В. Лексикология современного английского языка: Учеб. для ин-тов и фак. иностр. яз. – М.: ВШ, 1986. – 295 с.

7. Гвишиани Н.Б. Современный английский язык: Лексикология (новый курс для филологических факультетов университетов). – М.: МГУ, 2000. – 221 с.

8. Дубенец Э.М. Современный английский язык. Лексикология: Пособие для студентов гуманитарных вузов. – М. / СПб.: ГЛОССА / КАРО, 2004. – 192 с.



 Native words vs. borrowings.

 English words according to their origin are divided into two sets. The first set comprises native words, the second embraces borrowed words. Borrowed words are also called loan words or borrowings.

A native word is a word which belongs to the original English vocabulary as known from the earliest manuscripts of the Old English period.

A borrowed word is a word taken over from another language and modified according to the standards of the English language.

Native words constitute only 30 % of the English vocabulary. Native words are the most frequently used words. They are often monosyllabic, for example: hard, sun, tree. Native words are polysemantic, for example: the word star possesses 10 meanings, the word sit has 12 meanings, the word make develops 17 meanings. Native words show great word-building power, for example: the word heart form the words heart-ache, hearetbeat, heart-blood, heart-break, heartburn, hearten, heart-felt, heart-free, heartful, heartily. Native words form a lot of phraseological units, for example: bad hat – негодяй , to take off one’s hat to smb – преклоняться перед кем-либо, hat in hand – подобострастно.

Native words are subdivided into three groups: words of Indo-European origin, words of Common Germanic origin and English proper words. Indo-European and Common Germanic words are so old that they cannot be dated. English proper words appeared in the English vocabulary in the 5th century or later.

Words of Indo-European origin have cognates in the vocabularies of different Indo-European languages. These words fall into definite semantic groups:

· words denoting kinship: father, mother, daughter, son, brother.

· words denoting phenomena of nature: sun, water, moon, hill, wind.

· words denoting animals and birds: cat, goose, wolf, crow, bull.

· words denoting parts of a human body: arm, ear, eye, foot.

· words denoting physical properties: quick, slow, hard.

· some most often used verbs: sit, stand, come, bear.

· numerals: from one to a hundred.

      Words of Common Germanic origin have parallels in Germanic languages such as German, Norwegian, Dutch, Icelandic. Among the words of Common Germanic origin are the following groups:

- nouns: summer, winter, storm, rain, ice, ground, bridge, house, life, shoe.

- verbs: bake, burn, buy, drive, hear, keep, learn, meet, see, rise.

- adjectives: broad, dead, deaf, deep.

English proper words are opposed to the first two groups. Firstly, they can be dated. Secondly, they are specifically English which means they have no cognates in other languages. Cognates are words of common origin. The following words are English proper words: bird, boy, girl, lord, lady, always, woman.

Proper English words also include words which were made after the 5th century according to the English word-building patterns both from native and borrowed elements. For example: the word beautiful is built from the French borrowed root and the native English suffix. This word is considered to be a proper English word.

English history is very rich in different types of contacts with other countries: the Roman invasion, the adoption of Christianity, Scandinavian and Norman conquests of the British Isles, the development of British colonialism, trade and cultural relations served to increase the English vocabulary. The majority of borrowed words are assimilated in English in their pronunciation, grammar and spelling. They do not differ from native words. English continues to take in foreign words, but now the quantity of borrowings is not so great as it was before. English now is becoming a giving language.

Discussing the problem of borrowed words it is necessary to differentiate two terms: the term source of borrowing and the term origin of borrowing. Source of borrowing is a language from which the borrowing was taken into English. Origin of borrowing is a language to which the word may be traced. For example: the word paper < Fr. papier <Lat. papyrus <Gr. papyros has Franch as its source of borrowing and Greek as its origin.

Borrowing can be classified according to different criteria: according to the aspect which is borrowed, according to the degree of assimilation, according to the language from which the word was borrowed.

Classification of borrowings according to the borrowed aspects.

According to the borrowed aspects borrowings are subdivided into four groups. They are: phonetic borrowings, translation loans, semantic borrowings, morphemic borrowings.

Phonetic borrowings are the most numerous in English. In the process of phonetic assimilation each sound of the borrowed word is substituted by the corresponding sound of the borrowing language. For example: the words labour, travel, table, chair, people are phonetic borrowings from French. The words bank, soprano, duet are phonetic borrowings from Italian.

Translation loans are word-for-word or morpheme-for-morpheme translations of foreign words or expressions. In such cases the notion is borrowed from a foreign language but it is expressed by native lexical units. For example: to take the bull by the horns (Latin, взять быка за рога), fair sex (French, прекрасный пол), living space (German, жизненное пространство), pale-faced (Indian, бледнолицый), superman (German, супермен).

Semantic borrowings appear in two cases.

Firstly, semantic borrowings can appear when an English word was borrowed into some other language, developed there a new meaning and this new meaning was borrowed back into English. For example: the English word brigade was borrowed into Russian and got the meaning бригада. This meaning was borrowed back into English as a Russian borrowing.

 Secondly, semantic borrowings can appear if in two relative languages there are common words with different meanings. For example: in Scandinavian and in English which are relative languages there was a common word dwell. In Scandinavian the word dwell meant live, in English it had the meaning wander. Later, an English word wander acquired the meaning live.

Morphemic borrowings are borrowings of affixes. It happens when many words with identical affixes are borrowed from one language into another. In such a way the morphemic structure of borrowed words becomes familiar to the people speaking the borrowing language. In English there are a lot of words-hybrids in which different morphemes have different origin. For example: the word unmistakable has an English prefix un-, an English prefix mis-, a Scandinavian root -tak- and a Romanic suffix -able.

      Classification of borrowings according to the degree of assimilation.

 According to the degree of assimilation borrowings are subdivided into three groups: completely assimilated, partly assimilated, non-assimilated.

Completely assimilated borrowings are not felt as foreign words. For example: sport, capital, service (French). Completely assimilated verbs belong to regular verbs: correct – corrected. Completely assimilated nouns form their plural by means of s-inflexion: gate – gates. The stress in completely assimilated words shifts to the first syllable: officer (French officier), monitor (French moniteur). As a rule, even completely assimilated words do not bring all their meanings into the borrowing language. For example: the Russian borrowing sputnik is used in English only in one of its meanings космическая ракета.

Partly assimilated borrowings are subdivided into the following groups:

a) borrowings non-assimilated semantically.

Such words denote objects and notions peculiar to the country from the language of which they were borrowed. For example: sombrero, sarafan, taiga, steppe, tsar, shah, peseta, zloty.

b) borrowings non-assimilated grammatically.

Some nouns borrowed from Latin and Greek retain their teir plural forms. For example: bacillus – bacilli, phenomenon – phenomena, genius – genii.

c) borrowings non-assimilated phonetically.

Some Scandinavian borrowings have the sounds g, k at the beginnings: girl, get, give, kill, kid while in the native words g, k aresubstituted by : German, child. Scandinavian borrowings may retain sk at the beginning. For example: sky, skate, ski. Though in native words there is only sh: shirt.

      Some French borrowings retained their stress on the final syllable: police, cartoon, unique. Some French borrowings have special combinations of sounds: memoir, bourgeois, camouflage, boulevard.

       Very often the whole pattern of the word’s make-up is different as in Italian or Spanish borrowings. For example: confetti, incognito, macaroni, opera, sonata, soprano, tobacco, potato, tomato.  

                  d)borrowings can be partly assimilated graphically.

      In Greek borrowings the letter y is spelled in the middle of the word: symbol, synonym. In Greek words the letters ph denote the sound f : phoneme, morpheme. The letters ch denote denote the sound k : chemistry, chaos.

     Latin borrowings keep their polysyllabic structure, have double consonants: accompany, affirmative. The letters j, x, z in the initial position also indicate the Latin origin of the word: jewel, zest, xylophone.

     In French borrowings consonants p, t, s are not pronounced at the end of the word: buffet, coup, debris. A specifically French combination of letters eau can be found in the borrowings beau, chateau, trousseau. Some digraphs retain their French pronunciation: ch is pronounced as : chic, parachute, qu is pronounced as : bouquet, ou is pronounced as : rouge, soup. Some French borrowings keep diacritic mark: cafe, cliche.

     German borrowings are spelled with a capital letter: Autobahn, Lebenstraum. A in German borrowings is pronounced as a: Dictat, u is pronounced as u: Kuchen, au is pronounced as au: Hausfrau, ei is pronounced as ai: Reich.

    Non-assimilated borrowings or barbarisms are used very rarely. Among them are addio, tete-a-tete, dolce vita, a femme, ciao, coup d’etat.

    The degree of assimilation of borrowings depend on the following factors:

a) from what group of languages the word came. If the word belongs to the same group of languages to which the borrowing language belongs it is assimilated easier.

b) in what way the word is borrowed: orally or in the written form. Words borrowed orally are assimilated quicker.

c) how often the borrowing is used in the language. The greater the frequency of its usage, the quicker it is assimilated.

d) how long the word lives in the language. The longer it lives, the more assimilated it is.

    Classification of borrowings according to the language from which they were borrowed.

    In English there are two main groups of borrowings according to the language from which they were borrowed. They are Romanic borrowings and Germanic borrowings.

    Romanic borrowings include Latin, French, Italian and Spanish borrowings.

   Many Latin words were borrowed during the period when the British Isles were a part of the Roman Empire: street, port, wall. A lot of Latin (and Greek) words came into English during the Adoption of Christianity. These borrowings are usually called classical borrowings: alter, cross, dean, church, angel, devil.

Latin and Greek borrowings appeared in English during the Middle English period. These are mostly scientific words because Latin was the language of science at that time: memorandum, minimum, maximum, veto. Classical borrowings continue to appear in Modern English. They are numerous in medecine: aspirin, appendicitis, in chemistry: valency, acid, in technology: antenna, airdrome, biplane, in politics: socialism, militarism. In philology most terms are of Greek origin: homonym, archaism, lexicography.

     French borrowings came into English during the Norman conquest. French influenced not only the vocabulary of English but also its spelling. Documents were written by French scribes because local population was illiterate and the ruling class was French. For example, French scribes substituted the letter u before the letters v, m, n and the digraph th by the letter o to escape the combination of many vertical lines: sunu – son, luvu – love.

There are some semantic groups of French borrowings:

a) words relating to government: state, empire, administer;

b) words relating to military affairs: army, war, soldier, battle;

c) words relating to jurisprudence: advocate, petition, sentence;

d) words relating to fashion: collar, coat, lace;

e) words relating to jewelry: topaz, pearl, emerald;

f) words relating to food and cooking: lunch, dinner, appetite.

    Italian borrowings are terms of music: alto, baritone, duet, quartet, violin, libretto. Among the Italian borrowings are also gazette, incognito, autostrada, fiasco, dilettante, grotesque.

    Spanish borrowings came into English through its American variant: cargo, embargo, tango, rumba, guitar, bananas, ananas.

Germanic borrowings include Scandinavian, German and Dutch borrowings.

In the Old English period English underwent a strong influence of Scandinavian due to the Scandinavian conquest of the British Isles. There are about 700 Scandinavian words in English. They are bull, cake, egg, knife, window, happy, ill, low, ugly, call, get, give, die, same, both, they, them, their.

There are some 800 words borrowed from German into English. Among German borrowings are cobalt, zinc, wolfram, iceberg, Kindergarten, Bundeswehr, gestapo, Volkswagen, Gaistarbaiter.

Holland and England had constant interrelations and more than 2000 Dutch words were borrowed into English mainly in the 14th century. Most of them are nautical terms: skipper, keel, dock, reef, deck, pump.

Etymological doublets.

Sometimes a word is borrowed rwice from the same language. As a result, there are two different words with different spellings and differernt meanings but historically they come back to one and the same word. Such words are called etymological doublets. Among etymological doublets are the following: money / mint, chamber / camera, castle / chateau, whole / hale.

International words.

The process of borrowing is mostly connected with the appearance of new notions which they serve to express. So, it is natural that the borrowing is seldom limited to one language. Words of identical origin that occur in several languages as a result of simultaneous or successive borrowings from one ultimate source are called international words. Examples of international words are: concerts, piano, antibiotics, bionics, anaconda, orang-outang, football, tennis, time, shorts, leggings.

To sum up the lecture it is necessary to say that English includes etymologically different words which have been coexisting for centuries.



                    Lecture # 3

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