English IB HL

Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue “Where Words Come From” (Chapter 5)


In the English language, there is a word that describes “a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action” – velleity (which seems very useful), and there IS a word for that sudden sensation of falling when you are just falling asleep – a myoclonic jerk, which we’ve all felt before. English has such a wide and rich vocabulary, but where do these words come from? In the fifth chapter of “The Mother Tongue”, Bryson tells us about the unexpected and surprising origins of English.

Perhaps the most well known way in which English was first created is thorough adopting foreign words. English is an extremely eclectic language that derives at least half of its common words from non-Anglo-Saxon stock. Words which are used in daily conversation today, such as shampoo comes from India, potato is from Haiti, and slogan is from Gaelic.

Next on Bryson’s list is that words are created by error. Many words in English have been created through misreadings and mishearings. For example, “sweetheart” was once “sweetard”, and “asparagus” once “sparrow-grass”. Words are also created through the mistakes of famous and respected users of the language, like Shakespeare, who used the word illustrious as the opposite of lustrous.

Speaking of Shakespeare, thousands of English words are said to have been created by him in his play-writing years; words such as critical, majestic, hurry, and lonely – ones we could not do without today.

Words are also created by adding or subtracting something, i.e., by using prefixes and suffixes such as –ness, -pre, -ment, -able, to name just a few. English also possesses the ability to make new words using compounds like airport and landmark.

Finally, some words change meanings while the word itself stays the same – this I find to be most interesting. Believe it or not, counterfeit once meant “a legitimate copy”, enthusiasm was once a term for “mild abuse”, and girl used to refer to any young person, male or female.

Bryson has shown how fascinating tracing the origins of a language can be. Click here to buy and read more from “The Mother Tongue”. Click here to learn about the origins of my language, Japanese.


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