Monday, June 02, 2008

Etymology of the English Language

English is a very difficult language to learn. Ask anyone who has had to learn English as a second language, and you will hear about all its exceptions, the complete lack of structure, and the many inconsistencies.

But why is English so much more difficult than other languages? What makes English so confusing? Let us take a few English words and look at their etymologies. First, let us consider the names of animals, next to their corresponding food names:

Chicken - from Western Germanic kiukinam, which became the Old English cycen, meaning 'young fowl' (modern German for chicken: das Küken)
Hen -
Western Germanic khannjo (modern German for hen: das Huhn)
Poultry - from Old French pouletrie, meaning 'domesticated fowl' (modern French for chicken: le poulet)

Lamb - from Proto-Germanic lambaz (modern German for lamb: das Lamm)
Sheep - from Western Germanic skæpan (modern German for sheep: das Schaf)
- from Old French moton, meaning 'sheep' (modern French for sheep: le mouton)

- from Proto-Germanic kwon (modern German for cow: die Kuh)
Beef - from Old French boef, meaning 'ox' or 'cow' (modern French for ox: le bœuf)

- from Proto-Germanic deuzan, meaning 'animal' (modern German for animal: das Tier)
- from Old French venesoun, meaning 'meat of wild game' (modern French for venison: la venaison)

What I hope you notice from that list is that - without exception - the name of the animal is derived from a Germanic language, and the name of the meat is derived from Old French. Also, with the one exception of venison, you will notice that the original meaning of the French word was the animal, and the modern English meaning is the meat (ex: 'boef' meant 'cow', but in English 'beef' means the meat from cows).

More examples:

House - from Proto-Germanic khusan (modern German for house: das Haus)
- from Old French mansion (modern French for house: la maison)

Cart - from Old Norse kartr (modern German for cart: die Karre; modern Norwegian: kjerre; modern Icelandic: kerra)
Carriage - from Anglo French cariage, meaning 'cart' or 'carriage' (modern French for the verb 'to cart': charrier)

Again, what you see are two words that originally meant the same thing (or nearly the same thing) in Germanic and French - but in our modern day usage, the two words do not mean the same thing. Some of you might have noticed that the words of French origin are more high-class than those of Germanic
origin. A mansion is a house for a rich person. A poor person would have had a cart to carry goods; a rich person would have gone about the country in a carriage. And there are more examples. The English word 'work' is from Proto-Germanic wurkijanan (modern German for 'to be active': wirken), while the word 'servant' is from the Old French servant, meaning 'serving, waiting' (modern French for a service person: le serviteur).

Remember your World History class for a moment (though, if your high school history was as America-focused as mine was, you might never have come across this at school - I know I never did). Do you remember William the Conquerer and the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066? Prior to that time, the primary languages spoken in Britain were of Germanic roots. The Normans spoke Old French. Suddenly, the Germanic-speaking peoples were the lower class, and the French speakers became the ruling class. So the Germanic speakers raised the cows, and the French speakers ate it: thus our English words 'cow' and 'beef'.

Modern English is technically part of the Western Germanic family of languages, but English has many words (and, IMO, some grammar structures as well) that are obviously from the Romance languages, specifically French. This makes the study of English etymology extremely fascinating (at least to me), but the study of English a real chore for those who are learning it as a foreign language.

Who can think of more examples?

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  • Alan

    Really interesting stuff!

    BTW, you're debunking the traditional premise that engineers can't be good at language arts, or history, or ... well, they must be deficient at something!

    Sometime you need to do some blogging on the subject of artificial languages.

  • Harmony

    Artificial languages are great!

  • Smockity Frocks

    Slightly off topic, but I was explaining to my husband last night that in Spanish all objects are either feminine or masculine and you just have to remember which.

  • bluesky

    A great site for ESL students is AIDtoCHILDREN.com.

    AIDtoCHILDREN.com is a dual-purpose site for building an English
    vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most
    impoverished places around the world.

    Check it out at http://www.aidtochildren.com