Online Etymological Dictionary
Indo-European language family tree (chart form)
Indo-European language family tree (tree form)
(Correction: when I say “mostly the work of one man”, I mean the work of compiling this research into dictionary entries on this website. But of course, the work of generations of etymologists went into assembling this information and coming up with the most probable word histories.)
Today I’m going to show one of my favourite online resources, which is the Online Etymological Dictionary or Etymonline.com.
So for every word, there is a story, and this dictionary, which is mostly the work of one man, has compiled the etymologies of seemingly just about every word in common use in English.
So for today, I’m just going to start with a very simple word just to show the site.
And so from here: etymonline.com.
Why not try the word ‘word’?
Now here we get to a search page.
This you can really just read it straight off here, but by clicking here you also get to the main entry page.
This is the search results page.
If you match your word exactly, then it’s all right there, but you also see other words that are related to your search.
So let’s click on this, and now we get to the main results page.
So here we have the word ‘word’, which is a noun and so just begins just like a dictionary.
But what makes this dictionary interesting is that it traces the history of the word.
And so it begins with the most recent, and then it goes back into the past.
So first we have the immediate origin of this word.
Where does it come from?
So that shows that this is one of those core words that has been part of English for at least a thousand years.
And in fact, this is a word that you can see in Old English.
It was also called ‘word’ or ‘ward’.
And so this word really is pretty much unchanged for a thousand years.
Of course, you can see we tend to use this word ‘word’ to refer to, you know, a single word in a sentence, but this whole idea of word was referring to the general idea of talking and talking in general, because it’s all word, language, talking, speech: it’s all just word.
So that comes from Old English.
And then where does that come from?
The next level back, we go to Proto-Germanic.
So this would be the origin of the Old English language, coming from an earlier form of the Germanic language, and this word Proto-Germanic – proto meaning first – this is the earlier form of all the Germanic languages.
And here, this was called wurda.
So the star here shows that this is not an attested form.
There’s no actual, you know, written evidence that it was written this way, but it’s assumed and believed that it was based on the way that this word appears in all the different Germanic languages, all the daughter languages of Proto-Germanic.
Based on that it’s assumed that the original form at some point must have been wurda.
And here we see that this word is compared to other Germanic languages.
So we have Old Saxon and Old Frisian have word, and Dutch language has woord.
They like to spell with two o’s.
And we have Old High German and German wort.
They like to put the t instead of the d.
But clearly, these words are all sister words.
They’re all descended from this Proto-Germanic form, as well as Norse orð and Gothic waurd.
So a whole family of words.
You see, so the Old English word ‘word’ was just one of this whole family of all these other Germanic languages that had the same or very similar words, and all that is within the Germanic family.
Now that goes back even further, and that’s what I like specifically about etymonline.com, is it really tries to trace the word back as far as can be known.
Often dictionaries will simply stop the etymology.
They’ll say it’s Old English, and they’ll stop there.
But here it’s going back the next level, to Proto-Germanic.
And then even the next level, to what they call PIE, which is Proto-Indo-European, and this is the megafamily that includes almost all the languages of Europe and many of South and Western Asia.
So this, in order to really grasp it going this far back, it’s helpful to look at a tree.
Now you can see here, this tree is very comprehensive, trying to list all these languages just like a family tree.
So you have this like great-great-grandparent which is the Indo-European language family, or the Proto-Indo-European, this early form, the shared ancestor language, and then it has all these daughter families for all these languages across Europe and a lot of Asia.
And somewhere all the way down on this list you can see the Germanic family, and then within it, you can see, under West Germanic, you can see English just hiding out there near the bottom, just one of this giant family.
But it’s pretty hard to make sense of this chart.
So I find that you can see many different Indo-European trees on the internet, but one that I found to be one of the nicest of all is this one.
And why not, if you’re talking about a family tree or a language tree, why not describe it and show it as an actual tree?
So here you see in this root here the Indo-European language branching into two main trunks, for Indo-Iranian and European.
So here we see the languages of Persia, now Iran, and many of India.
But then over here, on the right, the European branch has many of these languages of Europe.
You see Slavic branch, with Russian, Polish, and so on.
The Latin branch, with all the romance languages, Spanish, Italian, so on.
Then the Germanic branch here, which contains the Nordic languages, Dutch, and so on, and English.
So when we’re tracing these words back, it’s like going back on the tree.
So each modern language is like a leaf or a little sub-branch of the tree.
Now we can take English back to Old English, and then to this Proto-Germanic branch here, and then that itself extends back to the Indo-European root.
So this word, see that it is connected to this root.
So here this is an example of a word that really hasn’t changed very much.
They’re going back to Proto-Indo-European, that’s estimated maybe around three thousand years, at least, where this word, if we have word, and it already was kind of were.
It already was very similar even back then.
And here it suggests to see ‘verb’.
So here we can see that the word ‘verb’ also comes from this same root, and here it’s suggested too that maybe there’s more information here.
So if we follow the link to see verb here, we get more information about this root.
So here’s the root were.
And now this is where I really find it impressive to see when they show the different sister words.
You can see how all these words are connected, so this root, this root word, is the ancestor of so many words in very different languages.
We have Avestan and Sanskrit, language of ancient India, vrata.
So you see it’s connected by regular sound changes that are can be traced back to this reconstructed earlier form.
Greek, Hittite, Lithuanian, Gothic, and there’s the Old English word.
So it’s amazing to think, when looking at this whole tree, you can find there are words in many of these different languages that can all be traced back to a single root.
And once we get there, that’s really where etymology ends.
There have been many efforts to trace further back beyond Proto-Indo-European to maybe some kind of great Eurasian language that includes even more language families, and the dream would be to create some kind of Proto-World language that can have some kind of common ancestor for all the languages of the world.
But even tracing back to a few thousand years seems to be about the limit of what’s been possible so far.
And it’s possible that anything further is lost in history.
So typically, when you’re looking at an etymology, the best you can do, the furthest back you can get, for English, is to get back to the Proto-Indo-European root.
Now you can see this presented here in a little sequence, so you have the PIE, Proto-Indo-European, root descended into the Proto-Germanic branch.
So that’s just like going from Indo-European onto the Germanic branch here.
Then into Old English word, and then into the modern English word.
So this is a very simple example a word that really didn’t do much.
It really meant pretty much the same thing, and its sound was even pretty similar for thousands of years.
So a very steady, solid word that has been very consistent through history.
And so a very, very ancient word that still continues in more or less the same form now.
If you try some other words, you may find that there are many that have some very surprising and unique etymologies.
So I recommend that.
Simply think of any word that you’re not sure about, or you find interesting.
Try typing it into etymonline.com and see what you can find.
So I hope you enjoy this resource.