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Brief Etymological Review of the English Word-Stock

by Linda Correli

Etymologically the vocabulary of the English language is far from being homogenous. It consists of two layers - the native stock of words and the borrowed stock of words. Numerically the borrowed stock of words is considerably larger than the native stock of words.

In fact native words comprise only 30% of the total number of words in the English vocabulary but the native words form the bulk of the most frequent words actually used in speech and writing. Besides, the native words have a wider range of lexical and grammatical valency, they are highly polysemantic and productive in forming word clusters and set expressions.

Borrowed words or loanwords are words taken from another language and modified according to the patterns of the receiving language.

In many cases a borrowed word especially one borrowed long ago is practically indistinguishable from a native word without a thorough etymological analysis. The number of the borrowings in the vocabulary of the language and the role played by them is determined by the historical development of the nation speaking the language.

The most effective way of borrowing is direct borrowing from another language as the result of the contacts with other nations. Though, a word may be also borrowed indirectly not from the source language but through another language.

When analyzing borrowed words one should distinguish between two terms - source of borrowing and origin of borrowing. The first term is applied to the language from which the word was immediately borrowed and the second - to the language to which the word may be ultimately traced. The closer the two interacting languages are in structure the easier it is for words of one language to penetrate into the other.

There are different approaches to classifying the borrowed stock of words

The borrowed stock of words may be classified according to the nature of the borrowing itself as borrowing proper, loans translation and semantic loans.

Loan translation or calque is a phrase borrowed from another language by literal word-for-word translation.

Semantic loan is the borrowing of the meaning for a word already existing in the English language.

Latin loans are classified into the subgroups.

  1. Early Latin loans. Those are the words which came into English language through the languages of the Anglo-Saxon tribes. The tribes had been in contact with Roman civilization and had adopted many Latin words denoting objects belonging to that civilization long before the invasion of the Angles, Saxons and Judes into Britain (e.g., cup, kitchen, mill, wine, port).
  2. Later Latin borrowings. To this group belong the words which penetrated into English language in the sixth and seventh centuries, when the English people were converted to Christianity (e.g., priest, bishop, nun, and candle).
  3. The third period of the Latin borrowings includes words which came into English due to two historical events: the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance. Some came to English language through French but some were borrowed directly from Latin (e.g., major, minor, intelligent, permanent).
  4. The latest layer of Latin words. The words of this period are mainly abstract and scientific words (e.g., nylon, molecular, vaccine, phenomenon, and vacuum).

The tendency of the English language to borrow extensively can be traced during the centuries. Thus, one can confidently claim that borrowing is one of the most productive sources of enrichment of the English vocabulary.

About the author:

Linda Correli is a staff writer of and an author of the popular online tutorial for students "What Teachers Want: Master the Art of Essay Writing in 10 Days", available at