Word Origins By: Jordan leary


When it comes to the English language have you ever given any thought to how we came up with some of these complex words? Did we just make it up? Do we borrow from other languages? If we did borrow from other languages, how much did we borrow? There are so many different possibilities to how the English language came into being that it definitely deserves putting some thought into. So today we are going to dive into the the mystery of the history or our English language.

Three Periods of english

The first period of the English language is Old English which took place from around 449 AD- 1066 AD. The most well known form of English was Anglo-Saxon words. This is the earliest historical form of English, spoken in England and parts of Scotland in the early Middle Ages.

Most Anglo-Saxon words were single syllable words that were mostly everyday words. They were also commonly used to describe everyday life, such as counting, colors, things relating to nature (oceans, animals, plants, farms, forests, etc...).

The Anglo-Saxon English has dwindled over the decades mostly replaced with French or Latin, but the Anglo-Saxon English actually makes up 20-25% of our Modern English today which is still a pretty good percentage for being such an old form.

The second period of English is the Middle English from around 1066 AD- 1500 AD. This period is most well known for its Latin roots and integration. As the Celtic and Anglo-Saxons started to be overrun by different cultures they were very soon left behind due to their more basic type of language.

Latin words had almost transcended the Anglo-Saxon language by adding abstract words, having multi-syllabic words, their use of elevated diction, and finally "things of the mind" such as (thought and other thinking words). We also start to see more emotional and personal type words giving their words extra strength when put in a sentence.

Unlike the Anglo-Saxon language Latin is still one of the most prevalent forms of language that we have used and adapted to our now Modern English. Latin makes up for an enormous 60% of our English Language. If that number alone doesn't say how much we have learned and benefited from Latin language I don't know what does. Although we still use some form of Latin words in our language,Latin is considered an extinct language because of its lack of a community of native speakers.

You’ve probably heard me mention a few times throughout this presentation the words Modern English. Yes I will explain to you what it is. The third and final period of the English language is the Modern English from 1500 AD- Present Day. Modern English is actually an accumulation of all the different types and variations we have developed over several centuries. Taking the bits and pieces to form the language that we use today. But the beginning of the Modern English period start with the adoption of the Greek language.

Both Greek and Latin languages stemmed from the Indo-European family of languages, but Latin later gave birth to a language family called the Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. Now we don't exactly just use the Greek words just as they are, but instead most often use the base words. A large number of scientific, technical, and medical words stemmed from Greek roots while Latin lent words to many other languages. Although Greek and Latin share many grammatical features such as gender, cases, noun inflections, there are certain subtle differences between Greek and Latin that can be noted in their origins, history and other notions.

Greek is also unique from all of the other languages because it has its own alphabet! The Greek language however only makes up for 10% of our Modern English which isn't much at all. Now for all of you math nerds out there you probably don't think I know how to do my math because my percentages don't quite add up to 100% like it should...


Now the rest is quite simple. We get the remaining 5-10% from other languages. Languages such as Italian, Old Norse, Norman, Dutch, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Arabic, etc… Below will be a chart according to a study showing the percentage of modern English words derived from each language group.


What does any of this Word Origin stuff have to do with anything and why is it important?

Word origin is very important. Etymology is knowing the origin, meaning, and history of a word, this provides enhanced perspective about its most effective use. You understand its original meaning and how it may have transformed over time, how people have used it past and present. You can differentiate subtle differences with similar or related words, both now and past. From etymology, you begin to see patterns and relationships between languages. You begin to see patterns and gain understanding about the development of words. You gain greater capacity to comprehend great writing past and present through the clarity obtained. You enrich your ability to communicate by expanding your precision control over meaning based on the words you now more wisely choose to make use of. It is a form of history. When reading anything from the past, understanding the etymology of words is profoundly enlightening, as it clarifies meaning that can be otherwise lost or misinterpreted by the passage of time.


There isn’t really much I can teach a second, third, or fourth grader about etymology because the word alone would probably melt their brains. Instead it would have to be something very subtle. For example just like we did in class the packet of the Word Origins and how we went over the clues to be able to determine whether it was Anglo-Saxon, Latin, or Greek. Maybe take a designated time to go over the clues and have them posted up on a wall somewhere in the classroom where it would be easily noticeable. Then when we do our vocabulary and spelling words for the week also kind of test their knowledge to see if they know if the root of the word is Anglo-Saxon, Latin, or Greek with the assistance of the clues posted on the wall. Hopefully as time goes on they will start to pick up on the clues and be able to notice the roots of the words almost effortlessly.

Another example could be going over the clues for a certain period of time till the students have a pretty good understanding of how how each language differs. Then I would set up a type of benchmark assessment (not for a grade) and have a bank of multiple words. From there the students will need to correctly split the words into their correct category, either Anglo-Saxon, Latin, or Greek. The reason I say not for a grade is because for the age level that I aim to teach I don’t feel it absolutely necessary for my students to have a full grasp on this concept as it is somewhat difficult.

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