The Many Origins of the English Language

Stumbled across an amazing interactive chart showing the various influences which affected the development of the English language over time, and felt it was worth sharing.



The picture above is a static capture of the cumulative results; if you want to explore in more detail, have a look at Lexicon Valley. The author, Philip Durin, writes,

The elephant in the room, however, is how Latin and French dominate the picture in just about every period. Even the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from Latin (e.g. fork, street,wine), and ever since the Norman Conquest English has been borrowing hugely from French and Latin—quite often taking the same word partly from each of these languages, especially in the medieval period. Words like government, pay, science, orwar (from French), or action, general, person, and use (French and/or Latin) have become an indispensable part of English. Even among the 1000 most frequently used words in modern English, not far short of 50 percent have come into the language from French or Latin. Numbers do not always tell us everything, though: the total of loanwords from early Scandinavian is relatively low, but the language of the Vikings has left some of the most intimate traces in the vocabulary of English, with words likeleg, skin, sky, and even they, their, and them.

This is an intriguing overview, and now I’m anxious to get a copy of his book, Borrowed Words.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Snows of Yester[insert noun here].

Today’s 9 Chickweed Lane, one of my must-read daily comic strips, got me thinking a bit about the prefix “yester.” It would have been hard for a linguist not to, having had it shoved into my face like this.


I mean, who really thinks about the real meaning of the bits and pieces that our words are made up of? I know I’m not the only one, but we’re in a vanishing minority, that much I can say. One of my favorite courses during my undergraduate studies was an entire class which dealt with Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. No other class expanded my vocabulary more.

Did you know “cordial” comes from the root cord-, card- meaning “heart?” You can certainly see it in “cardiologist” and “misericordia.”

How about “translate” and “transfer?” They’re the same word, with the prefix “trans-” (across) and the word “to carry” (ferro, ferre, tuli, latus). Just different parts of speech were used in the root.

Or “attic“? Did you know that the lumber room upstairs was directly related to Athens, Greece?

Some folks might find this BORing, but not I – it fascinates me. So what about “yester-“? Where did it come from?

The Online Etymology Dictionary says it’s from Proto-Indo-European *ghes, which can mean “the other day,” either backward or forward. Compare modern German’s gestern (“yesterday”), but Gothic gistradagis (“tomorrow”). Interestingly enough, “yesteryear” is a back-formation coined in 1870 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from yester(day) + year to translate French antan (from Vulgar Latin *anteannum “the year before”) in a refrain by François Villon: Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan? which Rossetti rendered “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”

Although yesteryear was not created until 1870, a predominantly Scottish “yestreen” (last evening or last night) was in use from 1773. According to one Scrabble dictionary, the following words use the prefix:

  • Yesternight
  • Yesteryear
  • Yesterday
  • Yestereve
  • Yestern (an adjective pertaining to the previous day or night)

And, as Mr. McEldowney has pointed out, the prefix could legally be attached to just about any time period. Unless you don’t want to be lumped together with the beefwits and boneheads.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 PS: Even if you don’t happen to be a comment reader, drop down and read the derivative poem by Sharon Neeman, below. It’s moving and beautiful.