The sources of English words


The Anglo-Saxon base

Germanic settler tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians) entered Britain in AD 449 onwards and displaced the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants. If we can assume that the lexicon reflects the preoccupations of the language users, we would not be surprised that the original Anglo-Saxon lexicon is concerned about basic, down-to-earth matters. The Anglo-Saxons were originally not a settled group; there was a settled civilisation, but not very literate or sophisticated.


Many of the words are still used today. Some are grammatical words (such as be, in, that) while others are lexical words (sing, live, go). Anglo-Saxon words are usually short and concrete. Although Anglo-Saxon lexemes form only a relatively small proportion of the modern lexicon, in any passage of English, there is a relatively high density of Anglo-Saxon-derived lexemes, and indeed the 100 most frequently used items are almost all Anglo-Saxon (Crystal 1995: 125).


There are number of items that pertain to down-to-earth, everyday matters. Many of the words that we described as ‘core’ earlier seem to be from Anglo-Saxon. These words are of parts of the body (arm, bone, chest, ear, eye, foot, hand, heart), the natural environment (field, hedge, hill, land, meadow, wood), the domestic life (door, floor, home, house), the calendar (day, month, moon, sun, year), animals (cow, dog, fish, goat, hen, sheep, swine), common adjectives (black, dark, good, long, white, wide) and common verbs (become, do, eat, fly, go, help, kiss, live, love, say, see, sell, send, think) (Jackson & Amvela 2000: 31). This is not to say that the Germanic settlers were without poetry, music and culture; there were also some heroic components to Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.


Celtic borrowings

When the Anglo-Saxons took control of Britain, the original Celts moved to the northern and western fringes of the island – which is why the only places where Celtic languages are spoken in Britain today are in the west (Welsh in Wales) and north (Scottish Gaelic in the Scottish Highlands). Celtic speakers seem to have been kept separate from the Anglo-Saxon speakers. Those who remained in other parts of Britain must have merged in with the Anglo-Saxons. The end result is a surprising small number – only a handful – of Celtic borrowings. Some of them are dialectal such as cumb (deep valley) or loch (lake). Reminders of Britain’s Celtic past are mainly in the form of Celtic-based placenames including river names such as Avon, ‘river’, Don, Exe, Severn and Thames. Town names include Dover, ‘water’, Eccles, ‘church’, Kent, Leeds, London and York.


More recently, though, Celtic words were also introduced into English from Irish Gaelic – bog, brogue, blarney, clan, slogan, whisky.


The view that there have been only a handful of Celtic borrowings is beginning to be challenged by linguists who hold that there has been Celtic influence that has been ignored (‘Celtic hypothesis’)


Scandinavian borrowings  

The Scandinavian influence on Britain can be thought of in terms of three episodes.


Firstly, we can think of the period 750–1016 when the Vikings (Scandinavians) began attacking the northern and eastern shores of Britain and settling in those parts of Britain. There was a state of enmity between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, so unsurprisingly, not many Scandinavian borrowings took place; these include husbonda (husband) and lagu (law).


Secondly, we can consider the period 1016–1050, where the conditions were more or less similar to the earlier period, only that King Alfred the Great had succeeded in uniting the Anglo-Saxons through actively promoting the English language (among other things). There were more borrowings, including cnif (knife) and diegan (die).


Finally, we have the period 1050–1480. The French-speaking Normans took over Britain in 1066, and both the English and Scandinavians were given the same fate and were subdued by the Normans. Naturally, the English and the Scandinavians come together and interact with each other more closely. Therefore, a massive influence of the Scandinavian languages on English, in both grammar and vocabulary.


Unless you are a specialist, it is very difficult to pick out Scandinavian loan-words in English. This is because they seem to have the same quality and texture as Anglo-Saxon words. They are ordinary, everyday words, and quite often monosyllabic and include grammatical words (like the verb are (to be), or the pronouns their, them and they and some of the commonest words in English today like bag, dirt, fog, knife, flat, low, odd, ugly, want, trust, get, give, take, raise, smile and though. A good number of sc- or sk- words today are of Scandinavian origin (scathe, scorch, score, scowl, scrape, scrub, skill, skin, skirt, sky). Scandinavian loan-words are therefore more usefully considered as core items. Why is this so?


  • The English and Scandinavian belong to the same Germanic racial, cultural and linguistic stock originally and their language, therefore, shared common grammatical features and words. But changes had occurred in the languages during the couple of centuries of separation of the two sets of people.
  • The Scandinavians came to settle, rather than conquer or pillage. They lived alongside the Anglo-Saxons on more or less equal terms.
  • Under the Norman French, particularly, the two different groups fashioned a common life together as subjects.


Under these conditions,

(a) the English word sometimes displaced the cognate Scandinavian word: fish instead of fisk; goat instead of gayte;

(b) the Scandinavian word sometimes displaces the cognate English word: egg instead of ey, sister instead of sweoster;

(c) both might remain, but with somewhat different meanings: dike-ditch, hale-whole, raise-rise, sick-ill, skill-craft, skirt-shirt;

(d) the English word might remain, but takes on the Scandinavian meaning dream (originally ‘joy’, ‘mirth’, ‘music’, ‘revelry’); and

(e) the English words that were becoming obsolete might be given a new lease of life, eg  dale and barn.


French borrowings

The Norman Conquest of 1066 left England as a trilingual country, although most people would only speak one or two of the dominant languages. Latin was the language for record keeping, learning and the church. French was the language of the Norman aristocracy and therefore also the language of prestige, government and polite social intercourse. English was the language of the common folk and menials.


When the Normans took over England, they changed the language of government and the court almost overnight and disregarded existing institutions. Instead, they took on almost wholesale institutions derived from France, including the feudal system which guaranteed strong control by the king.


 There were three periods of French borrowings. The first, from about 1066 to 1250 represents the height of Norman power. The language spoken by the Normans, known as Norman French (different from Central or Parisian French) was the the language of the King’s court, the nobles’ castles and the courts of law. Norman French was therefore the language of honour, chivalry and justice. Indeed, Matthew of Westminster said, ‘Whoever was unable to speak French was considered a vile and contemptible person by the common people’ (1263).


There were not many French borrowings, since English continues be used, largely in its own, low-level arenas and French and English speakers were kept separate.


The second period, roughly from 1250 to 1400 represents the period of English-French bilingualism in individuals (not just in the nation). The number of French loanwords ballooned in this period. Why was this?


Very briefly, this is what happened. In 1204, Normandy (in northern France, where the Normans came from) was acquired by the French king. Among other things, it meant that the Norman aristocracy in England couldn’t travel back and forth between their lands in England and France anymore. They had to choose whether they wanted to remain in England or in France. Those who remained in England began to see England as their home. This led to the reassertion of English as the language of the realm. Other reasons for the reassertion of English are:

  • the Normans in England belonged to the Capetian dynasty spoke Norman French; this became non-prestigious in France as the variety spoken by the Angevian dynasty in France, Parisian French, became the prestige variety; because Norman French was seen as socially inferior, it was less difficult to abandon it in favour of English;
  • subsequently, England became at war with France in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453).


Even as English was on its way in, the gaps in English vocabulary had to be filled by loanwords from French. These include items pertaining to new experiences and ways of doing things introduced by the Normans. So whilst the English already had kings, queens and earls, terms taken from French include count, countess, sire, madam, duke, marquis, dauphin, viscount, baron, chevalier, servant and master. Other domains that became enriched with French loanwords include:


  • Government: parliament, chancellor, government, country, crown
  • Finance: treasure, wage, poverty
  • Law: attorney, plaintiff, larceny, fraud, jury, verdict
  • War: battle, army, castle, tower, siege, banner
  • Religion: miracle, charity, saint, pardon
  • Morality: virtue, vice, gentle, patience, courage, mercy, courtesy, pity
  • Recreation: falcon, covert, scent, chase, quarry
  • Art, fashion, etc.: apparel, costume, gown, art, beauty, colour, image, design, cushion, tapestry
  • Cuisine: stew, grill, roast, . . . (compare these with AS-based terms like bake), bacon, mutton, pork, veal, venison (compare these with AS-based terms like boar, calf, cow, deer, ox, sheep, swine)
  • Household Relationships: uncle, aunt, nephew, cousin (form from OE: father, mother, brother and from Scandinavian sister)


The third period of  The ThFrench borrowings is from around 1400 onwards. The borrowings of the first two periods tend to be more elegant and sophisticated but yet not too far away from the core and several became quite nativised (dance, April, native, fine, line, punish, finish). These later borrowings were more, distant from the core, with attention being explicitly called to their sophisticated, well-bred, cultivated, even arty ‘French’ texture: notice the spellings and pronunciations of some of these items:  ballet, tableau, statuesque, cliché, motif, format, trousseau, lingerie, soufflé, hors d’oeuvre, rouge, etiquette.


Latin borrowings

Latin, being the language of the Roman Empire, had already influenced the language of the Germanic tribes even before they set foot in Britain. Latin loanwords reflected the superior material culture of the Roman Empire, which had spread across Europe:  street, wall, candle, chalk, inch, pound, port, camp.


The native Celts had also learnt some Latin, and some of these were borrowed by the Anglo-Saxons in Britain:   sign, pearl, anchor, oil , chest, pear, lettuce.


Latin was also the language of Christianity, and St Augustine arrived in Britain in AD 597 to christianise the nation. Terms in religion were borrowed:   pope, bishop, monk, nun, cleric, demon, disciple, mass, priest, shrine. Christianity also brought with it learning: circul, not (note), paper, scol (school), epistol.


Many Latin borrowings came in in the early MnE period. Sometimes, it is difficult to say whether the loan-words were direct borrowings from Latin or had come in through French (because, after all, Latin was also the language of learning among the French).  One great motivation for the borrowings was the change in social order, where scientific and philosophical empiricism was beginning to be valued. Many of the new words are academic in nature therefore: affidavit, apparatus, caveat, corpuscle, compendium, equilibrium, equinox, formula, inertia, incubate, momentum, molecule, pendulum, premium, stimulus, subtract, vaccinate, vacuum. This resulted in the distinction between learned and popular vocabulary in English.


Greek borrowings

Greek was also a language of learning, and Latin itself borrowed words from Greek. Indeed the Latin alphabet is an adaptation of the Greek alphabet.


Many of the Greek loan-words were through other languages: through French – agony, aristocracy, enthusiasm, metaphor; through Latin – ambrosia, nectar, phenomenon, rhapsody. There were some general vocabulary items like fantasy, cathedral, charismatic, idiosyncrasy as well as more technical vocabulary like anatomy, barometer, microscope, homoeopathy.


During the Renaissance and after, there were modern coinages from Greek elements (rather than borrowings). For example, photo- yielded photograph, photogenic, photolysis and photokinesis; bio- yielded biology, biogenesis, biometry, bioscope; tele- yielded telephone, telepathy, telegraphic, telescopic. Other Greek elements used to coin new words include crypto-, hydro-, hyper-, hypo-, neo- and  stereo-.


Other borrowings 

As a result of empire and trade contacts, the lexicon of English continued to acquire terms from other languages including the following:


  • American: racoon, coyote, prairie, wigwam
  • Australian: wallaby, kangaroo, boomerang
  • Arabic: saffron, sequin, tamarind, alchemy, zenith
  • Persian: naphtha, jasmine, chess, lilac
  • Japanese: samurai, kimono
  • Other Asian regions: avatar, yoga, stupa, karma, curry, bangle, chop, catamaran, mandarin, ketchup, kowtow


For users of English in England, America, the rest of Europe, etc., these settle around periphery, not as learned words but as exotica.  



1. The vocabulary of English has vastly increased in size during the last 1,500 years as language reflected historical events, social and cultural factors

2. Language contact and cultural domination has greatly influenced the word stock of English. Social and cultural changes are accordingly clearly reflected in changes in vocabulary.

3. From the social point of view, more interesting than the mere addition of new words is the change in the character of English word stock, from one which can be called Germanic to one that is also partly Romance – French and Latin, which have been associated with domains of power and prestige.

4. There have also been fundamental developments in the principles of word-formation (borrowing of prefixes and suffixes as well as words from French, Latin and Greek) and its social consequences.



A. What is lexicology?

B. How can lexis be organised?

C. Patterns of lexical change

E. Vocabulary across text types



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