Friday, May 24, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Etymology

The average person who isn't obsessed with languages like us probably isn't familiar with many of the most important fields in linguistics, such as phonetics and semantics. However, nearly everyone has heard of etymology, which is an important part of the field of historical linguistics. We imagine this has to do with the natural fascination humans have with history in its many forms.

This map shows the etymology of U.S. state names,
specifically their languages of origin.
The word etymology comes from the Greek term etymon meaning "true sense" combined with the suffix -logia, meaning "study of". Therefore it comes as no surprise that it is the study of the history of words, specifically their origins and how their form and meaning have changed over the years. There are four main ways that etymologists study the origin of words.

First, they can use philological research, which is a fancy way of saying that they can learn more about languages with a long written history by studying their old texts. By looking at these sometimes ancient texts, they're able to learn about how each word was used and spelled at earlier points in the language's history.

Another option is the use of dialectological data, which allows linguists to uncover variations in word usage or spelling between dialects of the same language. For example, this type of research has allowed linguists to pinpoint exactly when words like favourite and colour in British English shifted to become favorite and color in American English

There's also comparative linguistics, in which linguists compare words in related languages. The comparative method can help to solidify connections between languages that are thought to pertain to the same language family, as well help to reconstruct information about languages that are too old to be directly studied.

Fields of heather, a plant belonging to the genus Erica.
Finally, etymologists can also make hypotheses about changes in the meanings of words over time, known as semantic change. These hypotheses are generally based on the knowledge the linguist has of similar changes in other languages. 

Etymology can also be used in reference to the origin of a particular word such as a name. For example, the etymology of Erica is that it is a feminine form of the name Eric, originally from Old Norse, that was first used in the 18th century and is also identical to the Latin word for "heather". If you're interested in learning about the etymology of your name, this site seems to have a wealth of information to offer!