The previous blog episode provided an introduction to some of the unique challenges of English.

The next episodes aim to look at some of the strategies for making the learning process easier. The topic for this week is etymology.

Etymology, which came into English via both Latin and Greek, means the history of words.

In English (and, interestingly, also in Russian), etymology is particularly fascinating because so many of the words have arrived in the language via long and complicated journeys.

For instance, the English word ‘window’ was born in Scandinavia, where its original meaning was ‘wind eye’ – literally an eye into the wind. The early wind-eyes would have been in the roofs of thatched long-houses, and would have let air in whilst also letting the smoke of the fire out. An English book written in 731 AD vividly describes how, in the middle of winter, a bird was able to fly into one of these houses and out of the other side.

The word ‘window’ arrived in England in around 1200 AD, and was so popular that it was never replaced by its Latin equivalent, fenestra.

How can knowing the etymology of a word such as ‘window’ help in learning the language?

The answer is that it can help in several ways.

Firstly, etymology is excellent for visual learners. Being able to picture the history of the word can make it feel more alive, and therefore meaningful, in the mind of the learner. When a word has its own story, it is often easier to remember.

Secondly, it can prevent mistranslations. There are many words in English that look deceptively similar to their Latin cousins. These are normally referred to as “false friends”. False friends begin by having the same meaning, but over the years their meanings have migrated. There is a list of the most common false friends between English and Italian here. Checking the etymology can help to iron out these translation problems.

Thirdly, for more advanced learners, it can help with semantic nuances. Acquiring the texture and tone to fully express oneself in a language is always a challenge, but in a language such as English – which is a jumble of hundreds of other languages – it can be difficult to know whether one is taking their tea in a garden or a yard. Understanding that ‘garden’ is from the French, and is therefore more formal, will give any student a helpful hint that tea is never taken in a ‘yard’.

Doug Harper has created a useful online etymology dictionary. Like any normal dictionary, it gives the meaning of the word, and then its history.