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Borrowed Words–How English Borrows from Other Languages

Borrowed Words–How English Borrows from Other Languages

The English language has many borrowed words. English is basically a Germanic language by structure. English vocabulary, however, comes from everywhere. In this posting I talk briefly about the history of English and where many of its borrowed words come from. Finally I talk about parts of many common English words that came from Greek or Latin. There will be many example words and sentences. The download at the end will give you more practice using and understanding borrowed words in English.

How borrowed words work in English

Prior to 1066, the people living in the British Isles had no need for borrowed words. They spoke a German language called Old English. It is related to what we speak today. In 1066, William the Conqueror of France conquered Britain. The language of the nobles became French. The common people, however, still spoke Old English. Because of this, a double vocabulary developed in English. For example, everyone liked pork. The nobles called it by the French word, porc, while the common people called it swine. Both words exist in modern English, although pork is more common. As Christianity spread, more words form other European counties crept into English.

Some fun facts about borrowed words

Here is a brief summary of where many borrowed words in English come from: Latin–29%, French–29%, Greek–6%, other languages–6%, and proper names–4%. That leaves only 26% of English words that are actually English! There is very little that is original about English. Since its words come form so many languages, many may have come from yours.

When English borrowed words, it kept the original spellings from the original languages. All languages borrow words, but many change the rules to fit their phonetics. For example, photograph is a Greek word. Ph has the sound /f/ in Greek. English has kept the ph, but Spanish has changed it to f as in fotografia. This is why English spelling is so difficult and often does not make sense, even for native English speakers.

Some common borrowed words in English

Below is a list of borrowed words and the language they come from. You probably use many f these words every day.

  1. dollar (Dutch)–connected to a mint where coins are made.
  2. zero (Arabic)–Many words relating to math come form Arabic.
  3. alarm (Italian)–to arms
  4. banana, zebra, jumbo, yam (African tribal languages)
  5. ketchup (Chinese)
  6. pyjamas (Urdu and Persian)
  7. giraffe (Arabic)
  8. anime, sushi, karaoke (Japanese)
  9. moccasin (Native American tribal languages)
  10. ski (Norwegian)
  11. penguin (Welsh)
  12. ballot (Italian)–means a small pebble cast into a box to vote
  13. canteloupe (Italian)–named after a town where this melon grows
  14. massage (French)

Common parts of words borrowed from Greek

Many common English words were borrowed, in part form Greek. Many other languages have also borrowed these word parts, so you language may have cognates with these words. This will make it easier for you to earn them. You will see the word part, some example words, and an example sentence.

  1. anti (against)–antibacterial. You need to shower with antibacterial soap before surgery. 
  2. ast (er)–astronomy, asteroid. Astronomy is the study of stars and planets. 
  3. aqu (water)–aquarium. A fish may live in an aquarium. 
  4. auto (self)–automatic. An automatic transmission changes gears by itself. 
  5. bio (life)–biology, biography. A biography is the story of someone’s life. 
  6. chrome (color)–monochrome. A monochrome image has only one color. 
  7. chrono (time)–chronicle. A chronicle is a story told over time. 
  8. geo (earth)–geology. Geology is the study of the earth. 
  9. graph (write)–autograph. Your autograph is your signature. 
  10. hydr (water)–dehydrate. If you don’t drink enough water, you may become dehydrated
  11. path (feel)–sympathy. I felt sympathy for her when her father died. 
  12. phono (sound)–telephone. You can hear someone’s voice on the telephone
  13. photo (light)–photocopy.  Please make a photocopy of this recipe for me.
  14. tele (far)–television. A television lets you see shows all over the world. 

Some common parts of words borrowed from Latin

Although no one speaks Latin anymore, many parts of Latin live on in word parts. Many languages have borrowed from Latin, especially for math, science, and medical words. Chances are you have Latin cognates in your language.

  1. audi (hear)–audience. The audience enjoyed the concert. 
  2. bene (good)–benefit.  My new job has many excellent benefits
  3. brev (short– brief, abbreviate. We can abbreviate Mister to Mr. 
  4. circ (round)–circle, circus, circulate. We may need to circulate if there is no place to park. 
  5. dict (say)–dictate, diction. Dictate the letter you want to send, and I’ll write it. 
  6. doc (teach)–document, doctrine. Please read this document before you make a decision. 
  7. gen (birth)–generation. There are 3 generations in her home, the grandparents, the parents, and the kids. 
  8. jur (law) jury–On no! I just got a summons for jury duty. 
  9. lev (lift)–elevate, elevator. Take the elevator to the 5th floor. 
  10. luc, lum (light)–translucent, illuminate. You can see some light through something translucent
  11. manu (hand)–manicure, manual. A construction worker does manual labor. 
  12. mis, mit  (send)–transmit. You can transmit your message several ways. 
  13. pac (peace)–pacifist. A pacifist does not believe in war. 
  14. port (carry)–portable, export. A laptop is a portable computer. 
  15. scrib, scrip (write)–script, describe. Please describe your hometown. 
  16. sens (feel)–sensitive. She is sensitive, as her feelings are easily hurt. 
  17. terr (earth)–territory, terrestrial. A wolf has a huge territory in the wild. 
  18. tim (fear)–timid. A timid person is fearful and shy. 
  19. vac (empty)–vacuum, evacuate. Please evacuate the building when you hear the fire alarm.
  20. vid, vis (see)–video, vision. He has poor vision, so he needs glasses. 

You now know that English has many words borrowed from other languages. In fact, most English words are borrowed from somewhere else. Many borrowed words are of Greek or Latin origin. A large number of these words have cognates in many languages. If you know what many of these common word parts mean, it will help your English vocabulary to grow. The download will give you additional practice using and understanding many of our borrowed words.

You can download the practice sheet now!

Idioms of the day

  1. to stop at nothing–This means to be willing to do anything to achieve success. Stephen will stop at nothing to win a large Christmas bonus. 
  2. to law down the law–This means to strongly assert your authority. After Charlie got into his fifth car accident, his parents laid down the law. No more driving! 

Misty Davidson
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