Human brains are like living lexicons. In everyday life we use words without knowing its origin or how it is introduced to a certain language. If we dig deeper into the history, we will find that the evolution of word is like a multi storey building, where each floor (read: stage) provides mostly an awkwardly similar or an offbeat meaning or ancestry.
Etymology, the discipline that deals with the structure and evolution of words, holds a Greek origin. It is derived from the words etymon and -logia, which denotes ‘Sense of truth’ and ‘The study of’, respectively. Therefore, the purpose of the subject is to find the root of a particular word or morpheme.
For instance, the word Oxymoron is derived from the Greek word Oxus and Moros, which means Pointedly foolish. It clearly delineates the meaning of the word Oxymoron that we use today as a literary device.
- Tracing the History of Etymology
- Different theories of Etymology
- Methods used to conduct the study of Etymology
Tracing the History of Etymology
The study of etymology, or the origin and development of words, has a long history that can be traced back to ancient times. The silent world of words is almost dated back to Antiquity or older than that. The purpose of Etymology was always to break the silence and detangle the threads that are almost invisible. Though the presence of the subject could be found in Ancient Sanskrit text, by common consent, the subject was dealt with systematically for the first time in Plato’s Cratylus. After that no significant change occurred in the field of Etymology till the 19th century.
In ancient Greece, the philosopher and grammarian Dionysius Thrax wrote the “Techne Grammatike,” which is considered to be one of the first works on grammar and linguistic analysis. In this work, he discussed the origin and meaning of words, and laid the foundation for the study of etymology.
During the Middle Ages, scholars in Europe began to study the etymology of words as a way to understand the Bible and other religious texts. These early etymologists were interested in understanding the meanings of words in their original languages, such as Hebrew and Greek, and how they were used in the Bible.
During the Renaissance, scholars such as Giovanni Pontano and Lorenzo Valla began to study etymology as a way to understand the history and culture of ancient civilizations. They were particularly interested in the etymology of words related to mythology and religion, and in understanding how words had changed over time.
In the 17th century, the French Academy, established by Cardinal Richelieu, commissioned a dictionary of French language, which was published in 1694. This was the first comprehensive etymological dictionary and was a model for later dictionaries.
In the 18th century, the study of etymology became more systematic, with the publication of the first comprehensive etymological dictionaries in English and German. These dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” and Johann Christoph Adelung’s “Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart,” aimed to provide a comprehensive account of the origin and meaning of words.
During the 19th century, the study of etymology became more scientific, with the development of comparative linguistics and the study of language families. The publication of the “Oxford English Dictionary” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries marked a major milestone in the study of etymology, as it provided a comprehensive account of the history and development of the English language.
Today, etymology continues to be an important field of study in linguistics and other disciplines, and advances in technology have made it easier than ever to study the history of words and their meanings.
Different theories of Etymology
Behind the origin of words, there are a few theories involved. Which includes:
Language change is the dynamic nature of a language over time. The changes in language are like a river; some critics use the word ‘corruption’ to prevail the degradation of language from its true form due to human errors. But, according to John Lyons, any form of ‘evaluation’ applicable for ‘language change’ constitutes ‘recognition’ of ‘various functions’ based upon the needs of any society. Conventional theories of language change mainly indicate three types of changes.
- Systematic changes in the pronunciation or sound.
- Analogical changes, in which the structure and grammatical behavior of a word is converted to another word of resemblance.
- Borrowing refers to the process where a language changes by the influence of another language or dialect.
- Semantic change conveys the fact that evolution changes the meaning of a word. Example: Awful originally meant inspiring wonder (fear); however, in present days, the word is used to express extremely bad.
The formation of words can be followed in two ways.
Through morphological derivation and inflection
- Morphological Derivation: Recreate to Recreation to Recreational.
- Inflection: Plays, Played, Playing are inflected from the original word Play.
Through non morphological ways which incorporate acronyms and initialisms, blending, abbreviation, compounding, and back formation.
- Abbreviation: e.g., is the abbreviation of the Latin phrase Exempli Gratia.
- Acronyms: IIT for Indian Institute of Technology.
- Initialisms: ATM for Automated Teller Machine.
- Back-formation: Edit from the noun Editor.
- Compounding: Firefighter = fire + Fighter
- Blending: Horrible + Tremendous = Horrendous.
In Etymology, it is defined as the similarity between sound and meaning. The concept of sound symbolism brings out the sense that a word-sound will not only provide the audible sensation but also be exposed to other sensory properties such as vision, touch, smell etc. Sound symbolism includes:
- Onomatopoeia is the phonetic imitation of a word. It is derived from the Greek Onomato and Poeia, which means name making. Example: Human sound such as: mwah (a kiss)
Animal sound such as quack (duck), buzz (Bee)
Mechanical sounds such as: beep beep (sound from computer or Phone), cri cri (in Italian, it is the snipping sound of scissors).
- Phones theme is the sub-morphemic assimilations that are associated with a specific meaning. Example: English Gl- which represents so many words of almost the same meaning such as: Glow, Gloss, Glam, Gleam, Glare etc.
- Magnitude Symbolism is another type of sound symbolism which refers to the fact that high front vowels define something smaller than the low/back vowels.
- Ideophone refers to words that depict imagery other than audibility.
Example: kira kira in Japanese means glittery.
- Deictic symbolism refers to the presence of high front vowels in proximal demonstrative pronouns (This) and the presence of low and/or back vowels in distal demonstrative pronouns (That).
- Other kinds of sound symbolisms include, Bouba-Kiki effect, Pronominal Symbolism, and Tactile sound symbolism.
Methods used to conduct the study of Etymology
- Comparative linguistics: This method involves comparing the forms and meanings of words across different languages in order to reconstruct their common ancestor and trace their evolution. For example, by comparing the words for “father” in several languages, a linguist can reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European word for “father” and trace its evolution into the different languages. This method also allows for the reconstruction of ancient languages and the study of language families and their relationships.
- Historical linguistics: This method examines how words have changed over time within a particular language or language family. Historical linguists use evidence from historical documents and other written records to trace the evolution of words, such as changes in pronunciation, spelling, and meaning. This method can help to understand how languages change over time and how different languages are related.
- Semantic analysis: This method examines the meanings of words and how they have changed over time. Semanticists look at how words are used in context and how their meanings have evolved through metaphor and metonymy. For example, the word “foot” originally referred to the physical body part, but through metonymy, it can also refer to a unit of measurement or the base of something.
- Anthropological and cultural analysis: This method examines the cultural and social context in which words were used, including the customs, beliefs, and practices of the people who used them. This can help to understand how words were used in different cultures, and how they reflect the values and beliefs of those cultures.
- Philological analysis: This method examines the historical and literary context of words, including their use in texts and manuscripts, and the ways they were used by different authors and in different time periods. Philologists study the language, literature, and culture of the past, focusing on the evolution of language and literature and their cultural context.
- Etymological dictionaries: This method uses etymological dictionaries as primary sources to understand the history of a word. These dictionaries provide information about the origin and evolution of words, including their roots, prefixes, and suffixes, as well as the changes in their meanings over time.
- Etymological software: This method uses software to analyze and compare words, such as WordNet, which is an etymological database that can be used to explore the relationships between words and their meanings. This software can help to identify patterns and connections between words, and to understand the relationships between different languages and language families.