Etymology refers to the study of the development and origin of words, and how the meaning of words has undergone a transformation over the course of time (Malkiel 5). Etymological studies trace the origin of words back in time as far as possible, often through the use of comparative linguistics methods. In these studies, words that comprise our current vocabulary is usually found to have had a different meaning twenty years ago or even six hundred six years ago. It can be traced back to the Classical Greeks era where focused studies were started towards the development of alphabetic writing. In this paper, I will discuss how different ethnologists, the scholars who study the history of words origins, have traced the history of English language through research.
Ethnologists who have devoted much of their time to study the development of word through different periods rely on texts in languages with a long written history to figure out how words were utilized in earlier periods of history (Malkiel 7). By understanding the origins of words, scholars get the chance to tell subtle differences of linguistics. They monitor how the meaning and forms of words have been modified over time. Words that have newly emerged may become more or less clear to ethnologists. But researchers findings show that words often tend to become less obscure in the course of time because of semantic or sound change.
Expert ethnologists in the field usually apply methods of comparative linguistics when studying a language too old to have any direct information available with regards to its word origins. This represents the practice of comparing different languages to find out their shared parent language as well as historical and vocabulary relatedness. Adopting the use of this method has ensured that the roots of words are traced back in time to their origin.
The Stoics of the 4th-century B.C.E were the first investigators who believed that all languages were in a gradual state of decline on the basis of erstwhile perfection, and in their understanding, they claim a first true form of a word was yet to be realized. This concept was expanded to a greater degree by St Isidore of Seville, Spain, in the seventh century. He compiled a twenty part encyclopedia he referred to as Originum sive etymologiarum libri ( Books of Origin or Etymologies), which came to be popularly known as the Etymologiae (Anttila 20).
The perspective advanced by Isidore about the word origin were shaped by his inherent belief that Adam and Eve use Hebrew as their first language in the Garden of Eden. Also, his belief that the story of the Tower of Babel was literally true influenced his view. Therefore, a majority of scholars continued to uphold this view about the word origins throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Later Isidores theory formed the basis of research carried out during eighteenth and nineteenth-century among different scholars who included the American Noah Webster and Englishman John Horne Tooke. These two prominent scholars believed that language was the product of historical development however they were unable to formulate a non-biblical theory with which to modify traditional speculation into science.
It was not until the twentieth century when the study of word origins was fully transformed by Sir William Jones. In his studies, Sir William relied on comprehensive analysis of textual evidence from several languages which form part of historical linguistics. This became a recognizable major study on etymology during this time, but towards the end of the twentieth-century studies on the word, origins have not been a welcomed practice (Walpert 15). For instance, the Societe de Linguistique de Paris and British Academy in 1860 warned their members against encouraging any discussion about the origins of language because according to their claim the topic was so speculative and seductive involving futile and endless theorizing (Walpert 15).
The studies carried out by American Noam Chomsky, a most influential linguist of the twentieth century, centered on the evolution and the brain mechanism underlying language demonstrated the need by scholars and all those interested in etymology to uphold the subject at all cost (Walpert 16).. In his attempt to popularize the topic, Chomsky wrote different books about the topic and also as a public speaker he spoke in various forums on this subject. He wrote different books such as Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2000), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use (1986) and Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964) (Walpert 16).
For the English language, the origins of words are often traced with the use of Indo-European roots derivatives or using Germanic and Romanic roots. Unlike other languages, the English language has benefited significantly from its diverse sources. Different vocabularies were added to the English language mostly during the English Renaissance, the time different writers made the decision to supplement what they considered a basic vocabulary by importing words. At this time writers borrowed freely vocabularies from Greek, French and Latin languages.
The most popular method used in research by most scholars is the contemporary study of word origins. In this method, the focus is both on hypothesis and fact and it mainly lay emphasis on language families for which there is no apparent availability of early documentation. For instance, the Uralic language is an example of a language family made up of three dozen languages that are used by about twenty-five million people in different countries including Estonia, Russia, and Romania (Anttila 18). Austronesian is another language group that is used and spoken by approximately three hundred and eighty-six million people widely populated throughout the Pacific and islands of Southeast Asia.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, a leading cognitive scientist at Harvard University Steven Pinker and Yale Psychologist Paul Bloom established a new belief that language and use of words must have evolved by natural selection (Anttila 20). They argued that the attempt by scholars to trace the origins of the word is a matter of chance as they are required to rely on the earliest recorded forms and meanings to carry out any successful study.
They claim that if origins of words are to be reconstructed in this manner, then meanings have to be assumed for such forms as hypothetical and treated with caution. Words with clear-cut and known origins are usually preceded by an asterisk to mark its status but words whose origins are not possible to be traced far enough back, scholars often tag it o.o.o. terming it words with origin unknown or of obscure origin(Malkiel and Frede 7).
The scholars believe that language is complex and no one can exhaust all the vocabulary available. Core vocabulary is usually acquired before the beginning of learning in school. However, more vocabulary is learned as an individual progress through the different stages of education ladder and this is classified as learned vocabulary. Every person possesses a varying set and composition of vocabulary which is dependent on the education level and field of specialization. Most ethnologists believed that no single individual can ever masterfully more than a fraction of the learned vocabulary. An individual depth and command of vocabulary are used in most cases as a measure of intellect.
English vocabulary is known to comprise a list of changing words. According to the scholars almost on a daily basis, new words are incorporated to form part of English vocabulary and certain words in equal measure cease to be used (Malkiel and Frede 9). Word-creation and borrowing are the two major sources of new words in English. As revealed in different scholarly research, the field of higher learning such as social sciences, medicine, life sciences, law and physical science in most cases borrow words from other languages to derive new words to represents new abstract phenomena, new material or new concepts. Some words can be borrowed fully as it is without any modification, for instance, the words that are used to imply objects specific to other cultures. Sometimes only central parts are borrowed and modified to form new English vocabulary.
In conclusion, it is clear from this analysis that etymology is an important topic that has facilitated the study of words origins and their ultimate development in course of time. The different scholarly research that has been carried out in this field has helped learners not only to appreciate the origin of day to day English vocabulary but it has also reinforced the need to master different vocabularies as part of improving an individual intellectual ability.
Works Cited Page
Anttila, Raimo. Greek and Indo-European Etymology in Action: Proto-indo-european *ag. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub. Co, 2000. Internet resource.
Malkiel, Yakov, and Frede Jensen. "Etymology." English Language Notes. 34.1 (1996): 104.
Malkiel, Yakov. Etymology. Cambridge [u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999.
Walpert, Bryan. Etymology. Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd [Wales: Cinnamon Press, 2009.
If you are the original author of this essay and no longer wish to have it published on the customtermpaperwriting.org website, please click below to request its removal: