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Words: Then and Now

Eytmology:?The history of the verbal language

November 4, 2012
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

From where do words come? We use them every day: talking, typing, reading, signing, singing and texting. Communication is based on a mutual agreement of a common set of symbols and sounds, the true origins of which are unknown.

Some scientists and linguists speculate that changes in man's physical body began distinguishing his vocal language from that of the primates around two million years ago. That is when, they say, that the larynx of the Homo habilis began to drop in the throat, and the skull adjusted to form an L-shaped vocal tract. This allowed man to make more complex sounds than primates and other animals, particularly vowel sounds. No one, however, knows whether he did anything with this ability, for instance creating a language, or whether language developed quickly or over thousands of years.

"Modern man," so to speak, Homo sapiens, did not develop until 50,000 to 70,000 years ago when scientists note the crafting and use of more elaborate tools and utensils. By this time a common language was likely utilized for teaching others how to make and use these tools.

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Nearly all dictionaries include a word’s etymology information after the pronunciation. Here, the entry lists the French, Latin and Greek forms, after which it lists its Greek roots: “etymos,” true, plus “logos,” description, from “legein,” to speak.

It is believed that Homo sapiens migrated from what is now Ethiopia to all over the world, eventually forming ancient civilizations-Greek, Celt, Roman, Asian, Mayan, among others-who created their own distinct languages. In a study at Reading University in Great Britain, linguists compared contemporary English words with ancient languages for similar sounds and meanings using a super computer. It came up with a list of approximately 200 words with common roots that can be traced back to specific ancestral root words. Four of these are, in English, "I," "we," "two" and "three" and are probably around 40,000 years old.

Etymology, the study of word origins, histories and meanings, began several hundred years before the birth of what we know as the English language. Sanskrit linguists of ancient India studied the sacred Vedas and provided etymologies within their philosophical explanations. Hundreds of years later, in 500 BCE to 100 BCE, subsequent Sanskrit linguists and grammarians gave those who followed a blueprint for how to study language.

English is considered a Germanic language, part of the Indo-European language group from which most of the central and eastern European languages evolved.

Three Germanic tribes invaded Britain during the fifth century. Coming from what is now northern Germany and Denmark, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes crossed the North Sea and pushed the Celts west into (now) Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The resulting speech melting pot became Old English, and approximately half of the words used in today's Modern English are rooted in the Anglo-Saxon tribes. These include find (findan,) law (lagu) and tease (taesan.)

In 1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded Britain and brought the French language with him. It became the language of the Royals, and business was conducted in French, clearly delineating the upper classes from the lower, which spoke English. By 1300, English became the dominate language again, though many of the words were now French derivatives. Used by Chaucer for "Canterbury Tales," this Middle English included words like raffle (rafle,) girl (girle) and nod (nodden.)

The first English dictionary was published in 1604. By this time more and more people were learning to read, and the invention of the printing press made books accessible to the masses. It also created a need for standardizing grammar, spelling, pronunciation and usage. A cultural evolution brought about shorter vowels. The language was expanding and adopting words from foreign countries thanks to exploration and travel.

The "final" step toward Late Modern English was taken with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Technology and invention required new descriptions, processes and names.

The language continues to evolve today, with many new words related to social media and society. As late as this month new words have been listed on the Cambridge Dictionary blog: mem-noun for image or piece of text that helps you remember something; textonym-noun for a word produced by predictive texting that is not the word you want; glass cliff-term referring to women being selected for jobs where their failure is likely.

During the late 1700's and 1800's, "modern" etymology studies as conducted today began. An English philologist living in India, Sir William Jones, noticed similarities among Sanskrit, Greek and Latin words and published his findings in The Sanskrit Language, which became the basis for Indo-European linguistic studies.

Similarly, the Brothers Grimm began publishing a German dictionary in installments in 1852 which they had begun writing in 1838. The work was never completed because of its extensive analysis and history of every word but was considered a major contribution to the study of language.

Among those who make use of etymological history and word connections are spelling bee contestants. In fact, an estimated 11 million students will participate in the 2013 National Spelling Bee competitions, according to the E.W. Scripps Company, of Cincinnati, which owns the rights to the program.

Last year's Belmont County champion, Marcus Clark, of Martins Ferry, says that knowing a word's origin helps him determine the root word. Knowing a root and other parts of the word, such as prefixes and suffixes, help him spell the word in parts. He uses as an example dacrymycetaceae (a specific family of fungi,) which Marcus recognizes as Latin because of the "ae" at the end and the "myce" segment usually appearing in bacteria references. Incidentally, this is a word that he was asked to spell in a Bee.

Marcus begins studying the 450-word list for the school bee when it is available in September, reading through the list every day and writing the more difficult words out. Additionally, he writes down 50 consecutive words in the dictionary. The list for last year's county bee included 1,000 words, and for the national bee in Washington, D.C., Marcus studied the International Dictionary because any word in its 2,600 pages could be used during the bee. He takes language courses now to help with conversational words. How long does he spend studying?

"I usually study for about an hour or two on the weekdays, and I crank it up a notch on the weekend studying for three or four hours," says Marcus.

"But when it gets past the school bee and the county bee I try to study for six or eight hours since I've learned how long the spellers in the top 20 study words."

According to mom Heidi, they study year-round, and Marcus is excited about this year's competition. Aside from dacrymycetaceae, he notes his other favorite spelling bee word is otorhinolaryngology, a medical specialty concerning the ear, nose and throat.

Is there a particular word he would like to see in the Bee? Yes, Marcus notes. "A word I would like to see in the spelling bee is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, because almost every person I know has asked me how to spell that word."

To learn more about word origins, check out Webster's Dictionary of Word Origins with detailed histories of 1,500 words. For example, the word "blackmail" was associated with taxes in 17th century England, and "planet" comes from a Greek word for "wanderers." Online, has daily vocabulary words and features that are informative and entertaining, and is the study site for the National Spelling Bee with lists of words by place of origin and brief histories of how the languages were incorporated into English.



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