Where do English words come from?

Origins of English words pie chart

English words from Old English (Anglo-Saxon)

Old English/Germanic vs Old French/Latin words

Other sources

Indo-European language family tree

Where do English words come from?
They’ve been picked up over the many years of the history of English, and there’s no one clear way to divide these things up, but this is an example here of a nice pie chart that shows some of the major sources.
These numbers are approximate, but this gives the general idea of where the words of English come from.
So we can see that there are three major sources, and then the rest are minor sources.
So three major sources that make together almost 90% of all the words of English, roughly similar proportion, the green, blue, and red here.
So we start with the green.
Now, here it says Germanic languages, but this is mostly going to be from Old English.
So of course, it’s natural and expected that a lot of the words that are in modern English come from Old English.
They simply did not go away.
They simply were continued from that earlier stage of the language.
And these represent a lot of the core words, the core vocabulary, words that are very everyday, very humble, ordinary, common words.
Most of them have not changed in over a thousand years of English.
Of course, the sounds kind of morph a little bit, some of the exact pronunciation changes, but the basic words can remain more or less the same through all this time.
And this language, also called Anglo-Saxon, the origin of the word English come from Anglish, the language of the Angles, and also of the Saxons, together, this is the older form of English.
And we can trace this even further back, to this branch of the Indo-European language family, the Germanic branch.
This included the branches to Scandinavia, German, and English.
So all of these languages are related in a lot of their core vocabulary.
You can see a lot of common words, even starting with, you know, a, the simplest words of all.
So a lot of very basic words here.
Many of these common words all have simply continued from Old English.
So that’s the core that forms the centre of English vocabulary.
But then the next major layer, which really even has more words, is through French.
So of course, a thousand years ago, England conquered by Norman French speakers, and brought this new layer of the language.
So you can really look at English like a core of Old English or Germanic words with a layer of French on top.
So a lot of words began to be taken over by their French equivalents.
And we can even see that, in many cases, there is an equivalence, where there’s an English word and a French word sort of competing with each other.
And we can see, for example, here, this comparison of Anglo-Saxon and French words.
So you could say “kingly”, coming from Old English king, or you could say “royal” coming from Old French roy.
So we have many of these Old French words began to replace some of the Old English words here.
So we see this mixing of Old English and Old French, which combine to form Middle English.
So this is really, you know, quite a dramatic change in the history of English.
You know, you really go back to this ancient level of Old English, and then you add this whole extra layer of Old French, and their combination together is what really made Middle English, and then leading into modern English.
So it really is a most basic division in the core of English vocabulary, between Germanic words and French-origin words.
Here, we see, as well, Latin.
Now, wait a minute.
That is a bit confusing, because if we look at the tree, you can see that the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family tree separated from the Germanic branch, and Romance, Roman, of course, that’s their language is Latin, so this is just another way of saying the Latin languages.
Latin is just an earlier form of French, essentially, and so, you know, it’s the parent, in the sense of being the parent language of French.
And so we, already, a lot of Latin-origin words came to English through French.
But then there’s also a whole bunch of words that were brought to English directly from Latin.
So we see this earlier stage where many French words came in, but then there was, you know, the Renaissance, and the revival of the classical languages, Latin and Greek, revival of science and philosophy and so on.
The shared language of Europe was Latin, the language of the Church.
It was the language of science as well, until just a few centuries ago.
And so Latin exerted a very strong influence in English.
Especially in the fancier words.
That’s why, of course, if you say the word ‘Latin’, it sounds like, you know, it’s very fancy.
You’re bringing in Latin, you know, versus your Germanic, more basic, home words, and then Latin might be like your school, your business, your government, you know, more fancy words.
So, ah, here we see this table shows how there are many words that have both a Germanic or Latinate origin.
So in this case, Germanic would be mostly Old English.
Latinate could be either French or Latin in many cases.
We see relinquish, abdicate.
See how there’s like almost a sense of, in many cases, it’s more fancy, you know, the Latin side, saying “sequence”, you know, versus a “list”, and you know, “ask” versus “inquire”, and so on.
So yeah, this chart doesn’t clearly show which are coming through French.
You can see here attempting to trace the order of some of these words, which way they came in.
But especially many fancy words, like Latin words, you can see that there’s even a whole entry here about Latin legal terms, where we can see many of these are even continuing into English as Latin.
But in this case, these are words that, you know, we still write in italics, and treat them as if they’re still Latin.
But there’s been so many words that have simply become English words, simply adapted from Latin.
So these three groups together make really the great majority of English words.
And it is a unique thing about English.
The English language is classified as a Germanic language, and our core vocabulary is Germanic.
We descended, the language descended, from Old Germanic, along this branch of the tree.
And yet, looking at the pie chart here, you see that, really, we have twice as many words that are coming from either French or Latin, so coming from along the Latin branch of the tree.
So really learning, you know, both these branches have combined to make English.
Although if you look at words by the most common and most frequent, most of these core, most-frequent words would appear under the green, Germanic, Old English category.
And the remainder, we have a few different sources.
So one of them is Greek.
So the other great language of the classical world, the ancient Mediterranean, along with Latin, is Greek.
Now, I believe this number is probably even higher, because many words came from Greek into Latin.
They were already borrowed into Latin, and then came into English.
So possibly Greek to Latin to English, or maybe even, in some cases, Greek to Latin to French to English.
But these words here, 6%, these words are words that came directly from Greek into English.
And this is a similar process to the red Latin here, where these are the scholarly words, Greek being a language of scholarship, and the more fancy, technical words.
You can see this in science, and especially in medicine, you see Greek.
“English words of Greek origin”: you can find…
well, here it’s saying things like souvlaki, more of the modern origin.
But here we look at, yeah, this is more like it.
“Greek and Latin roots in English”.
This is where we get like a whole list of all sorts of different words like that you can see appear in many, many areas.
Air, aesthetics, agro for agriculture (although that’s Latin as well), amphibians, amygdala, anthropology.
All the ologies.
-ology is Greek.
So a lot of these technical, scholarly words coming from Greek.
And of course, that’s Greek, also this is from the Hellenic branch of the Indo-European tree, so just another branch there.
But yet another source of English words.
The next one is a bit of a surprising one.
These are words that are derived from proper names.
And so here we have words that are simply taken from people’s names, rather than coming from a word.
We see this in words like a jack simply comes from the name Jack.
And it’s very common for things to be named after places, like china, named after China, and you know, an ottoman.
And even a word like slave comes from the place name Slav.
So this is an interesting category of words all on their own.
And then, finally, of course, there are the words that are either unknown or come from many other languages.
And so all the other languages have a much smaller influence than these shown here, but there’s a very interesting collection of words that come from, yeah, dozens of languages that have at least one word.
So this page has a nice list of where you can look for a different word, or a different language, and see the kinds of English words that come from it.
And in fact, they link to very large lists here.
Many of them are in particular areas, like for example, Arabic has many star names.
And here we see from Chinese some interesting choices, like the word ‘brainwash’ that comes from Chinese.
A lot of Chinese food words.
And of course, food is something where you often see it coming from the language of that cuisine.
So a lot of words come that way.
But all sorts of other languages are contained within this 6% here, as well as the ones that still remain a mystery.
So these are the primary sources of English words.

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