Folk Etymology as a Linguistic Phenomenon

Presentation (Elaboration) 2007 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics




Chapter 1.Historical development of the English language

Chapter 2.Definition ofetymologyandfolk etymology

Chapter 3.Task solution




“Words are not only the elements of a language, but also of the history of the people speaking it. They are important milestones along the way leading to the majestic Palace of Human Knowledge.”[1]

E. Klein

The English language belongs to the Indo-European group of languages. Modern English is regarded as the global lingua franca. The language is widely spoken all over the world and we encounter it in business, science, technology, advertising, travel, and some other domains. However, how could the language originally spoken by a few thousand Anglo-Saxons establish such dominance? The language evolved over centuries and how much the language has change since then is all too clear.me of the words in present day English date back to Old English, while others come from many of the Indo-European languages. The arrival of other cultures to England had a significant impact on English linguistic history. The influence ofandinavian, Latin and Romance languages can be clearly seen at all linguistic levels in English language.

Historical linguistics is the study of language change. One of its main concerns is the study of the history of words. The discipline that analyses the origin, formation, and development of the word is defined as etymology. It is also a combination of word analysis and the study of literary text across language and time. However, it would not have developed into such an interesting discipline without the linguistic phenomenon of folk etymology. A foreign word that was hard to pronounce would be changed into something that sounded more familiar.metimes the change was made unconsciously due to mishearing or misunderstanding. This process frequently occurs when one language borrows a word from another.nce the Norman Conquest the English language was constantly adopting words due to external cultural influences. It is not entirely clear how many words entered English from other languages. But the meaning of some of them has also certainly changed. According to D. Crystal “most of the words in the language have changed their meaning over the past thousand years, their original meanings forgotten”.[2]Nevertheless, at that stage of development it is still possible for etymology to identify whether the change in a word or phrase’s meaning was made due to cultural influence or whether it is a case of folk etymology.

The evolution of English language can not be considered separately from the country’s history. Therefore the first chapter of this essay outlines some of the historical background to the English language, presented chronologically from Old English to Modern English. The second chapter is devoted to the termetymology, distinguishing this term fromfolk etymologyby giving definitions for both terms and providing some examples of folk etymology. The final chapter provides answers for task fromNatural Languagemanticsby Keith Allan. The essay ends with a conclusion.

Chapter 1. Historical development of the English language

Old English

The history of the English language started with the arrival of Germanic tribes, the Angles, thexons and the Jutes, who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. They came from the European mainland, what is today Denmark and northern Germany, and displaced the multilingual British population. Britain at this time was full of people with different ethnic backgrounds – Britons themselves (also called Celts), theots, the Picts, and the Romans, who ruled there until the early 5th century. According to D. Crystal “Old English, […], evolved in a land which was full of migrants, raiders, mercenaries, temporary settlers, long-established families, people of mixed ethnic origins, and rapidly changing power bases.”[3]So due to the varied origins of the British inhabitants Old English consisted of the diverse group of dialects. Eventually, a single language, also called Anglo-Saxon, was established. The new settlers formed kingdoms and sub-kingdoms and by the 9th century Britain was divided into four kingdoms - Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex with consequently four major dialect areas. Around the 10th century one of these dialects, Westxon, came to dominate. It also was a language of literature and political power in the land. It is significant for that period that the first sings of language standardisation were made. The surviving manuscripts display for example a lesser dialect mixture and remarkable similarity in spelling and word construction.

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years, from 410 to 1066, and during that time the Old English underwent many changes. First of all, it was influenced by Celtic-speaking inhabitants fromotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Wales. There are large numbers of Celtic place-names in England that were simply taken over by Anglo-Saxons, i.e. Avon or Leeds, as well as numerous compound names. The meaning most of them has to do with features of the landscape, such ascumborcomb(valley) inCambridge,dun(hill) inDoncaster,lin(lake) inLincoln,breorpenfor “hill” inPenrith.[4]Although the presence of Celtic place-names is still obvious in nowadays England, the etymology of many domestic words that are considered to be of Celtic origin is doubtful since it is hard to prove whether the word entered the Old English from Celtic language or from Latin. The chief difficulty lies in the fact that the Celts were familiar with Latin due to the Roman occupation. Thus, Latin could to some degree have had an influence on early Celtic. The process of borrowing from Latin continued throughout the Old English period. With the growth of Church’s influence a large number of religious words and words of educated character entered the language mostly through written manuscripts. A selection of words borrowed from Latin is given in the following panel.


[1]Ernest Klein, “Introduction”. InA comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language. (Amsterdam, London, New York, 1966), 10.

[2]David Crystal,The stories of English(London, 2005).

[3]David Crystal,The stories of English(London, 2005).

[4]Cf. ibid., http://www.askoxford.com/worldofwords/history/?view=uk.


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University of Münster – Englisches Seminar
Folk Etymology Linguistic Phenomenon



Title: Folk Etymology as a Linguistic Phenomenon