Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School


Like people, words have their stories. They have their origins, their nationality, their relationships with other words and the way they turn out is very much dependent on their journey.

The study of words’ stories is called etymology. It is a wide and captivating field. No one knows all the stories. EDIT: Professor Anatoly Liberman knows ALL the stories. Even if he can’t trace the origin, he can still tell us when the word came into use. He owns and has read every dictionary on the subject in several languages.

Sometimes an etymologist will have to declare “origin unknown”. Sometimes competing theories will be hotly contested by academics. Sometimes, theories that have been widely accepted are suddenly shown to have been utterly untrue. Such is thrust and parry of the etymological debate.

We do, however, know some stable facts about words and their histories. For instance, in English, our two main influences are known as the Romance and Germanic languages.

Around 60% of our words have Greek or Latin roots, but many have come directly from the French around the time of the Norman Invasion. War and conquering has so much to do with the development of English. Other Romance-influenced languages are Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Provençal, French, Italian, and Romanian.

We know that around 25% of our words are Germanic. Other Germanic languages are Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Frisian, Flemish, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, and Yiddish.

Romance and Germanic languages are said to both have their roots in a single prehistoric language known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Bear in mind the proto part of Proto-Indo-European. There are no written records dating back to the time scholars believe this kind of language was spoken, rather, they have traced it back based on assumptions, similar to the way in which we depict prehistoric creatures.

English is known as Germanic because of its structure and origin, but it has borrowed extensively from other languages throughout its documented history. Nobody quite agrees on relative percentages, but knowing Latin and Greek morphemes is not disputed as a great start when deepening our understanding of words and word forms in English.

An indisputably useful resource called Etymonline emerged in 2010. It was authored by historian and language enthusiast Douglas Harper, and is an ever-growing guide to word origins in English. The author himself admits that there can sometimes be flaws, but in terms of setting things out in a memorable, accessible way, Etymonline does a superior job.

Familiarity with this resource both for you and your students is highly recommended. The other fantastic etymological source is the Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman. His blog can be found at:

Professor Liberman agreed to be interviewed for this course and in the video below, he talks about how he got into etymology (among the myriad other things he is expert at) and reveals that his work has resulted in a robust study of every word in the English language. He ends with a caution about Etymonline, and though is pleased to be cited in numerous references on that website, he is not satisfied with its thoroughness. If you want the real thing, I would suggest buying this:

Interview with Anatoly Liberman

How to use the Online Etymology Dictionary

Etymology exercise

Course Navigation

Lyn Stone

Pick a word, look it up on Etymonline and share your findings here!

As discussed in the Module 5, the etymological tree from the Guardian: