Sunday, December 10, 2023

English etymology — guau

by ELENA JOHNSON/Coeur Voice Contributor
| March 30, 2022 1:00 AM

Language history and etymology are often presented as these simple, logical processes.

You’ve probably heard a lot of English words come from French (a good number of –tion words, for instance). Many learned types like to explain this as a hangover from French’s prime spot in global diplomacy, particularly in early modern history.

That’s a neat and tidy explanation. It’s also far from the whole story.

April is considered the National English Language Month. I can’t give a well-researched play-by-play of English history in just one column (without cheesing off the editor), but this is a good opportunity to share a few highlights. You’re speakers of the language after all (if not, you’re doing a darn good job faking it! Too bad you won’t see this praise), so you deserve to know some of the basics. And maybe you’ll remember to be skeptical the next time you see some way-too-tidy-and-exciting-to-be-real “etymology” on social media.

As a quick reminder, this is an equally quick history. If you read any history summed up in one paragraph (and it’s not the history of my grocery trip last weekend), you should assume there’s a lot of nuance missing.

First of all, the major source of French influence on English came in 1,000 years ago, not in the Enlightenment age. Thanks to the French Norman conquest of the Saxons in 1066 A.D., French became, well, a key player in what’s now England. When one group has this kind of contact with another, the second group’s language tends to inherit a LOT of influence from the first (if it’s not wiped out completely).

Naturally, English took on a lot of French vocabulary, as well as some grammar and pronunciation influence. The Norman invasion was a major turning point in English language history. Although it takes time for a language to change, this is more or less when Middle English (as opposed to Old English) starts. More French words came in over the centuries, too, however.

Old English, by the way, was a Germanic language. No, that does not mean English-speakers’ ancestors were speaking German, or even Old German. It means our languages are related — literally, they’re part of the same language (sub)family.

Why is the branch named for German? Well, it’s not. They’re ‘Germanic’ languages because they all, ultimately, way way way back, come from a quasi-theoretical (that means we can only prove it because of the similarities of all these languages) earlier language called Proto-Germanic.

Why is it Proto-Germanic? Honestly, I can’t find a good explanation. But it’s worth considering that the conventional naming for many language families and branches is pretty controversial; the names favored are not always representative. Someone may have been tracing German language history back to a Proto-Germanic, and then others later determined other languages had the same ancestor. English and German are fairly close family members, but don’t mistake German for Mommy.

Speaking of families, English belongs to the Indo-European language family. Our language is in the Germanic branch, and branching off from that is the West Germanic … err, littler branch? Cousin branches include the romance or Latin-derived languages (like French) and even languages that may surprise you — like Farsi (Persian) and Hindi, or the Celtic languages (like Irish and Scottish Gaelic).

Sometimes cousins have a lot of vocabulary overlap, but the similarities are more often noticeable in grammar. (If you’re skeptical, try learning Arabic (Afro-Asiatic language), Chinese (Sino-Tibetan) and Farsi. I can’t guarantee Farsi will be the easiest, but the grammar is much closer to the one you’re reading with right now.)

Approximately 66% of English words can be sourced back to Latin (that doesn’t mean you can’t source them back further to ancient Greek or other languages, however!). A Latin textbook I once used claimed almost 90% of English words that have three syllables or more are Latin-derived (I can’t confirm it, though).

Many of those Latin-derived words came in from — no, not necessarily a good classical education, but from French. When did that happen? Well, in no small part during the 11th century, a by-product of Norman invasion. OK, some definitely came in over the centuries, too, especially since Latin has been used by some of the educated elite to name concepts, plants and animals.

While English is an unusual language in many ways — not many languages are irregular enough to have spelling competitions — it’s not at all abnormal that we borrow words so often. In fact, we give away a lot of our words, thanks partly to the sway we have in the world.

It’s enough to make you say “guau” (Spanish spelling of our “wow”), right?

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You can reach Elena Johnson at

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