Finding the Origins of English Words

Finding out the origins of words borrowed by English takes a little searching, but with the right clues you’ll soon be picking them out as easily as choosing between black and white. Plus, you’ll be able to recognize and understand those words when you see them in their native context. We’ll start by looking for the following two clues:

  1. Which sounds are native or foreign, and from whence they have come
  2. What letters or combinations of letters have sound values in one or more languages

First, we’ll look at sounds that are found in native Teutonic words and some foreign borrowings (mainly Greek)

  1. ‘dh’ as in then is found only in native words
  2. ‘th’ as in thin can be either Teutonic or Greek. We’ll look at spelling differences to pinpoint them below.
  3. ‘kn’ is not pronounced in Modern English, but it is in early Teutonic words, and modern Greek borrowings
  4. ‘ng’ of singer; not as in finger where the ‘g’ makes a hard sound.
  5. ‘w’ as in woman or weir
  6. ‘y’of yes and yard
  7. ‘ow’ represented by ‘ow as in cow is most likely native Germanic (Swedish and Scots reduced it to an ‘oo’ sound)

The following are a very good indicator of words borrowed from French:

  1. ‘zh’ as in pleasure, measure, treasure, evasion, collusion
  2. ‘dzh’ sound of the letter ‘j’ as in jam, jelly, judge, jail
  3. ‘dzh’ sound of the letter ‘g’ as in genius, genuflection, gesture, gentle
  4. ‘dzh’ sound of -dge- as in edge, bridgealthough this sound is found in Old and Modern English, it is not a sure sign of native origin
  5. ‘-v- sound represented by ‘v’ is found at the beginning of very few native words
  6. ‘oy’ as in boy or ‘oi’ in boil is most likely of French origin

When reading a text in English, the following spelling clues will help you determine the language from which they originate.

Greek

  1. rh – rheostat, diarrhea
  2. mn – mnemonic, amnesia
  3. ps – psaltery, psychology
  4. pt – pterodactyl
  5. ch used as a ‘k’ sound – chromium, chrysalis
  6. ph used as an ‘f’ sound in photo, phone, phonograph
  7. y is pronounced with a long ‘i’ sound as in lyre and pyre

Germanic

  1. words beginning with ‘th’
  2. words in ‘ch’ – child, chap
  3. words beginning with ‘sh’ – ship, shine
  4. monosyllabic words ending in ‘sh’ – ash, wish, fish
  5. words beginning with ‘wr-‘, ‘wh-‘, ‘w-‘
  6. most words containing ‘-ght-‘

French or Latin

  1. words in which -ti-, -si- or -ssi- has an ‘sh’ sound – nation, fusion, fission
  2. polysyllabic words ending in ‘sh’ – finish
  3. words where ch- sounds like ‘sh’ – chef, chamois, chassis, chauffeur, chemise)
  4. words where -c- sounds like ‘s’ – cease, censure, circle, celibate, ceiling)
  5. words where -g- sounds like ‘zh’ – rouge, beige or -dzh’ – plunge, sponge

Keep in mind this is not a complete guide to all word origins in English. But it will help you in finding the origins of about 75% of English vocabulary. When I do find more information and examples, I’ll update them here. So please bookmark this page and check back. 🙂

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