Etymology Research Paper

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‘Etymology’ is the branch of linguistic science that treats the history of words and their components, with the aim of determining their origin and their derivation. It may also be defined as word history. In this sense one may speak of the etymology of a word.

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1. Relation To Historical Linguistics

The term is attested in English from the late fourteenth century, when as in earlier periods the study was aimed at determining the ‘true meaning’ of words, often with fanciful results. Accurate results were achieved only in the nineteenth century as historical linguistics developed. From that time, historical treatment of the lexicon has gradually come to be dealt with separately from historical treatment of the grammar. Historical linguistics deals with phonology, inflectional morphology, and syntax, while etymology confines its attention to the lexicon and derivational morphology; there has been some overlap. Etymological dictionaries may include entries on affixes like the past participle suffix -ed, as in hoped, probably because many of these are used as adjectives as well, e.g., in long hoped …, but dictionaries generally omit inclusion of the past tense suffix -ed and other inflectional affixes.

Although etymology omits treatment of grammatical elements, it relies heavily on historical grammar for phonology and morphology. It may also draw on syntax, as in the treatment of compounds. Advances in etymology have accordingly gone hand-in-hand with advances in historical linguistics.

2. Gradual Development As An Independent Branch

In the early decades of the nineteenth century etymological studies were directed at comparing prior forms in previous periods of the language and related forms in other dialects of that language, often in connection with historical essays, monographs, and grammars. Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) in his Germanic grammar of 1821 set side by side cognates like Greek treıs, Latin tres, Gothic reis, Old High German drı, and proposed rules for indicating the corresponding consonants, e.g., |gk t. goth th. ohg d|. He also recognized discrepancies, such as the differing correspondences with Latin t in frater, Gothic broar and Latin pater, Gothic fadar. But he did not account for the difference between the medial consonants of the two sets, nor for the vowels. Similarly Friedrich Diez (1794–1876) in his etymological dictionary of the Romance languages (1858) merely brought together related words centering on Italian.

Following etymological investigations as by August Pott (1802–87) (Pott 1836), August Fick (1833–1916) published a comparative dictionary of the Indo-European languages (Fick 1871) half a century after Grimm’s grammar. August Schleicher (1821–68) had introduced the practice of providing reconstructed starred forms (Schleicher 1862). Etymological dictionaries now provided the etymon and history of words rather than comparative lists. Etymology has subsequently been treated independently of historical grammar, as may be exemplified by Walter Skeat’s (1835–1912) etymological dictionary of the English language (1909) as well as the comparable German work in 1883 by Friedrich Kluge (1856–1926) (Kluge 1989). They were brought repeatedly up to date, as Kluge’s has been with more than twenty editions.

3. Explanation Of All Elements Of Words

By the end of the nineteenth century etymological essays, monographs, and dictionaries aimed at accounting for all the phonological and morphological changes in the development of words and stating their oldest attainable form. Methodology had become precise in accordance with increased understanding of phonology and morphology. In the fourth decade of the century linguists controlling the increasing knowledge of phonetics accounted for the unchanged ptk in Germanic words like spew, Latin spuo, stand, Latin stare by noting their position after fricatives; attention then was directed not only at individual sounds but also at combinations of them. In 1863 Hermann Grassmann (1809–77) (Grassmann 1863) accounted for the discrepancy exemplified in the initial b of Sanskrit bandhati and that of NE bind and similar patterns through establishing that an aspirate was deaspirated in Sanskrit and Greek when a second aspirate occurred in the following syllable. The IndoEuropean root was accordingly posited as *bhendhand the Germanic b was in accordance with the general change posited by Grimm. Attention then was directed at entire words, not merely at individual sounds and their immediate neighbors. After Karl Verner (1846–96) accounted for the voiced d in Gothic fadar and the voiced rather than voiceless fricatives of other such words by pointing to the position of their accent, as in the Greek cognate pater (Verner 1875), attention was directed at suprasegmentals as well as segmentals. Subsequently etymological studies treated all the formal elements of words—individual sounds, sounds in combination, and accentuation.

The entry for father in Skeat’s dictionary, brought up to date in 1909, may serve as an example. After a brief indication of the meaning, ‘a male parent,’ Skeat provides the Middle English and Old English form fader; thereupon he adds the cognates in other Germanic dialects and finally those in some of the IndoEuropean dialects, concluding with the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *pater-. He then lists a few derivatives, e.g., father-hood. The entry includes one formal comment, that ‘the spelling fader is almost universal in Middle English (and) father is due to dialectal influence, which changed -der to -ther.’ The entry may illustrate the concentration on the form of individual words characteristic of many etymological dictionaries.

4. The Impact Of Expanded Linguistic Studies

While greater control of phonology was being achieved, increasing attention was given to meaning and change of meaning. The results may be illustrated by the entry for the German cognate of father in the Kluge dictionary, which has been revised many more times than that of Skeat. After providing formal information, much like the entry of Skeat, the Kluge entry has an additional explanatory statement on the meaning: ‘The word refers clearly to the social status of the father (as master of the house) though a more precise etymology is not certain. Beside it there exists in most languages a familiar word, an imitative word (doubtless of child’s language) of the type Gothic atta, NE daddy, French and New High German Papa, etc.).’ This is followed by a list of cognates in the other present-day Germanic languages and by references to Patriot, Patrizier, Vetter. The entries for these are similar in pattern. They indicate that their etymon may be found under that for Vater. The entry for Vetter (cousin) also refers to other relationship terms which in turn contain further such references. Even though the kinship system is not provided as such, it may be inferred through the cross-references.

Such entries illustrate that a great deal of attention had been given to the position of words in society; the attention was fostered by the developing fields of dialect geography and sociolinguistics in the latter part of the nineteenth century. There was also more specific concern for the history of nonnative or, as they are generally known, borrowed words, as may be noted from the references under Vater. In addition, words were examined by semantic classes, such as the numerals, or wider areas, such as clerical, military, and political terms. The impact of all such relationships was then identified for more precise historical treatment. Conversely the information drawn from such relationships was applied to determine in greater detail the social conditions they revealed.

5. Various Kinds Of Imported Words And Their Modifications

Influences from other languages may be introduced in a number of ways. Words may be adopted with little change. These are known as ‘borrowings.’ Examples from the early contacts between Romans and Germanic speakers are words referring to improved transportation and measurement, such as street, Latin strata ( ia) ‘paved road,’ mile Latin mılle ‘1000,’ and inch, Latin uncia ‘twelfth.’ As in these words, modifications result from differences in pronunciation of individual sounds or in inflectional endings. Modifications may also be made in meanings. The Latin adverb alibı ‘elsewhere’ has been taken over as a noun in English, as has the Latin verb aff ıd a it ‘he has pledged his faith.’

Rather than adoption, a foreign word may be translated, utilizing native elements. Several processes may be involved in such importations. If the foreign word or its elements are rather literally translated, the results are known as ‘loan translation’ or calques. Examples may be cited from the time when classical culture and religion were introduced into northern Europe. The word heathen ‘inhabitant of the heath or countryside’ is a translation of the Latin paganus. Similarly, gospel Old English god-spell ‘good story’ is a translation of Greek euaggelion, also imported as e angel.

If the translation is not as exact as in these words, it is referred to as a ‘loan rendition.’ Examples are prominent in German, in which Gewissen corresponds to Latin conscientia, conscience, Sauerstoff to oxygen. If the foreign word is taken as a model but not reproduced with similar elements, it is referred to as a ‘loan creation,’ for example German Auferstehung, Latin resurrectio, resurrection. The meaning of foreign words may be taken over for native words in ‘semantic loans.’ Words like God, heaven, hell, Lord were modified in this way with the introduction of Christianity.

After foreign words or elements are introduced into a language their components may be paired with native components, resulting in ‘hybrids.’ The native inflectional suffixes of English like the genitive -s and the participial -ing are used with non-native nouns and verbs; on the other hand, non-native suffixes like -able are used with many native English words, as in doable. As another modification, foreign words may be modified to fit the native pattern resulting in ‘back formations.’ Widely cited examples are pea from Old English pise, Latin pisum, where the -s was taken as plural marker, and cherry, based on French cerise.

These processes involved in etymological explanation may illustrate that etymology is closely related to historical grammar.

6. Relationships Between Etymology, Historical Grammar, And Culture

Etymological investigations contribute information on the phonological or morphological status of languages concerned at a given time. For example, the word wine adopted from Latin at the beginning of our era informs us that the initial consonant of ınum was still pronounced as a resonant. When ine was later introduced into English, it had been shifted to a fricative. Similarly the borrowing of Latin catınus as kettle informs us that vowel mutation in the West Germanic languages took place only later.

Such information is especially important in providing information on the early periods of languages. The importation of Proto-Indo-European words into Proto-Finno-Ugric, e.g., *medhu‘honey,’ PFU *mete among other borrowings, and that of PIE *pek’u- ‘cattle’ into Proto-North-Caucasian *paHaKwV among other borrowings, has been taken as evidence that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European were located along the Volga in the fifth millennium BC.

The words affected also inform us of the social and cultural relations between the two sets of speakers. English provides paradigmatic information. The words taken over from Latin at the beginning of our era such as those cited above belong to the everyday vocabulary but suggest greater technical advances for the Latin speakers.

A half century later many words were taken over from Scandinavian, such as bank, car, sky as well as the pronouns they, them, their. Adoption of these words indicates that both sets of speakers shared approximately the same culture.

The sets of words adopted from French and the classical languages after 1000 AD belong in general to advanced facets of society, such as political, clerical, military and, other such spheres. They suggest introduction of items from speakers of a more complex society.

We may regard these three types of borrowings as patterns for interpreting the findings regarding language relationships generally. Importations among the languages of Europe today are comparable to those between Scandinavian and English. Influence of Arabic on Spanish from the tenth century, as of Arabic and Persian on Turkish, is comparable to that of French on English. Historical examination of the lexicon to determine the etymology of its items then not only illuminates the development of languages but also contributes to our understanding of the culture and social situation of their speakers.


  1. Diez F 1858 Etymologiches Worterbuch der romanischen Sprachen. Marcus, Bonn, Germany
  2. Fick R 1871 Vergleichendes Worterbuch der indogermanischen Sprachen. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Gottingen, Germany
  3. Grassmann H 1863 Uber die Aspiraten und ihr gleichzeitiges Vorhandensein im Anund Auslaute der Wurzeln. Zeitschrift fur ergleichende Sprachforschung 12: 81–138
  4. Kluge F 1989 Etymologisches Worterbuch der deutschen Sprache, 22nd edn. Walter de Ceryter, Berlin
  5. Malkiel Y 1976 Etymological Dictionaries. A Tentative Typology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  6. Malkiel Y 1993 Etymology Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  7. Pott A 1833–6 Etymologische Forschungen auf dem Gebiete der Indogermanischen Sprachen. Meyer, Lemgo, Gemany
  8. Schleicher A 1862 Compendium der ergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, 2 Vols. Bohlau, Weimar, Germany
  9. Skeat W W 1909 An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Revised Edition). Clarendon, Oxford
  10. Verner K 1875 Eine Ausnahme zur ersten Lautverschiebung. Zeitschrift fur ergleichende Sprachforschung 23: 97–130


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