The Evolution of English Vocabulary

How is it that English has such a huge vocabulary, larger than any other language on earth? In addition to various word formation mechanisms existing in other languages, such as onomatopoeia, derivation, affixation, compounding and functional extension, the major source for the large variety of English words is its dramatic history. The 1,600 years of English existence have been witness to massive revolutionary changes in the language as it mixed with and continuously borrowed from other languages, with which it came into contact.
Early English roots trace back to the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries resulting in Old English being mainly Germanic. 83% of the most common 1000 words in today's English are of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Old English


•    nouns: house, mother, father ,cow, God, gold, work, land, winter
•    verbs: be, have, do, say, come, make
•    adjectives: good, new, and long
•    function words: he, of, him, for, and, under, on

Already in this period of Old English, the language began applying its inclination to ravenously borrow words from other languages. From the native Celts, it took clan, bin, gull, and crag, as well as names for places and rivers (Dover, Kent, Severn, and Thames). Latin words arrived even earlier with the Roman conquest of 43 B.C. (cheese, cup, kitchen, plant, street, wine). A later wave of Latin words was brought with Christian monks and missionaries seeking to convert the Anglo-Saxons, enriching the language with both religious and secular words, such as abbot, altar, acolyte, candle, martyr, Mass, and lily.

The next addition to the vocabulary to close the Old English period resulted from the Viking invasions to Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries. These newcomers, who had settled alongside the Anglo-Saxons, contributed Old Norse vocabulary such as the following:
From Old Norse: flat, cake, take, get, call, husband, want, cut, both, ugly, fellow, hit, odd, egg, sister, law, leg, rag, window, die, are (form of the verb be)
•    words beginning with sk sound: scorch, scrape, scrub, skill, and sky
•    The personal pronouns: they, their, them

Synonymous word sets such as those presented above already show up in this period: sick vs. ill, shirt vs. skirt, wrath vs. anger, rear vs. raise, hide vs. skin, the first Anglo-Saxon, the second Old Norse, respectively. The all-in-all contribution of words from Germanic origins (Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse etc.) amounts to about 23% of the current English vocabulary.
The year 1066 marked the dramatic transition to Middle English, with William the Conqueror, king of Normandy in Western France, drawing his army into Britain. Old French thus became the spoken language of the ruling classes: the nobles, bankers, lawmakers, and scholars; the peasants and lower classes spoke Anglo-Saxon and some surviving Celtic dialects; the clergy used Latin. In the coming 400 years, Middle English gradually overthrew French and became the language of all classes, but words for government, religion, food, law, art, literature, and medicine are originally French.
From Norman French: parliament, justice, crime, marriage, money, ornament, art, pleasure, joy, rent

The parallel usage of several languages has resulted in some famous duplicate and triplicate synonym sets. For instance, kingly (from Old English), royal (from French), and regal (from Latin). As well as house-mansion, wood-forest, answer-reply, yearly-annual, room-chamber, wish-desire, might-power, worthy-honorable, and bold-courageous (the former from Old-English, the latter from French, respectively).
Another fascinating example of the social divide between language users of Middle English is shown in nouns denoting different kinds of meats. The English speaking peasants who raised the animals used the Anglo-Saxon words (swine/pig, sheep, ox, cow, calf, deer), whereas the French speaking elite, who could afford eating these meats regularly, used the French equivalents (pork, bacon, mutton, beef, veal, venison, respectively). Today, these duplicates remain in common use in modern English, using different words for the animals and the meats produced from them. The contribution of both Norman and Modern French to English is estimated in about 29% of the current vocabulary.

The Renaissance arrived to England in around 1500 with a burst of literary works being published in Early Modern English thanks to the developments in mass printing. It was only at this time that some initial consolidation was beginning to occur in the language's vocabulary. After centuries of the church dictating religious guidelines for the cultural and spiritual life of Europeans, an increased nostalgic interest in the humanistic values of ancient Greece and Rome produced a torrent of unparalleled creativity.
Scholarly research was written in Latin, as English was considered poor in vocabulary and too crude for expressing abstract ideas. A large portion of such words was originally Latin but entered English through their French manifestation. The education of children, however, was now being carried out in English. This entailed the use of new words from Greek, while Latin continued to be a steady source of vocabulary.
From Greek: democracy, hexagon, monogamy, physics, rhythm, theory
From Latin: client, conviction, index, library, medicine, orbit, recipe

Key cultural achievements of this period were the first official publication of the Bible in English (the Saint James Bible) and the immense corpus of William Shakespeare's literary enterprise, and that of other writers. Shakespeare contributed a wealth of newly coined and/or borrowed English words.
From William Shakespeare: courtship, bedroom, discontent, accused, addiction, amazement, assassination, critic, employer, engagements, savagery, transcendence, urging, watchdog, zany

The word set for naming a person riding a horse provides an illustrative interim summary for the development of English vocabulary up to this point. The simplest option is rider (from the Anglo-Saxon ritter, horseman entered through the influence of the Vikings' Old Norse *hross. Knight, originally Old English *cniht, began being used around 1300. Cavalier (from French chevalier), or the elegantly elevated equestrian, directly derived from Latin, comprise the more elevated choices here.
With more published material in English, England's rise to power under Elizabeth 1, and increased English influence on international business and trade, diplomacy, and colonialism, English was brought to the fore as the national language of England, proudly used by all the English people. The year 1650 marks the transition into the Modern English period. Further factors contributed to the growth of English as a powerful language. Political upheavals led to the rise of port towns and former lower classes that further strengthened common English usage. The publication of the first comprehensive and official dictionary of the English language by Samuel Johnson in 1755 began the process of canonizing the written language. As education in English was now being offered to the masses, who also enjoyed access to libraries in English, more and more people could enrich their vocabularies and improve their English language aptitude.
The scientific revolution and renewed interest in the classics during the 19th century have opened the gate for yet another wave of scientific and technical terms for newly found concepts and discoveries – all derived from Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes. The current proportion of Latin words in English is 29%, while Greek contributes about 6%.

From Latin: aquarium, binoculars, radioactive, ambiguous, intermission, itinerary, rejuvenate, supersonic, quadrangle, submarine, multitude, linguistic
From Greek: Zoology, philanthropy, bacteria, chlorophyll, psychosis, cholesterol, cyanide, chromosome, metamorphosis, thermometer, trauma, xenophobia, telegraph, telephone, polymer, orthodoxy

The British colonization of North America, Australia and parts of Asia and Africa has resulted in the creation of whole continents speaking English, which in turn has been enriched by the mother tongues of locals and immigrants. In 1828, Noah Webster published the first official dictionary of American English, which established differences in spelling between British and American English and further paved the way to differences in vocabulary between these two language varieties. The rise of the mass media during the 20th century: newspapers, cinema, radio, television and The Internet have given the latest push to English in becoming a global language, as English is the main language used. This in turn brings more words into English from just about any other language on the planet but also has the potential to disintegrate English itself to new emerging local English varieties.
A steady influx of international words has been coming in during the past two centuries. Just think about the words for all food sorts introduced form each origin language! The following table presents some common examples:

From Spanish: aficionado, amigo, burrito, canyon, caramba, cargo, embargo, guacamole, guitar, macho, marijuana, mustang, poncho, pueblo, rodeo, taco, plaza, vanilla
From Modern French: caf, lingerie, connoisseur , coup d'atat, en route, hors d'auvre, panache, sabotage, envelope, and avalanche, not to mention chic, vis-a-vis, attach, and a la carte, bon voyage, rendezvous
From German: kindergarten, poodle, yodel, blitzkrieg, zeitgeist, angst, delicatessen, hamburger, schnitzel
From Dutch: brandy, yacht, waffle, apartheid, boss, cookie, dam, drill, tattoo, cruiser
From Italian: balcony, casino, umbrella, balloon, carnival, ghetto, graffiti, Madonna, Mezzanine, spaghetti, pasticcio, cappuccino, (and many other foods), concert, piano, maestro, soprano, andante, opera (and other musical terms)
From Arabic: alcohol, algebra, candy, lemon, azimuth, elixir, giraffe, gazelle, sugar
From the languages of India: chutney, bandana, curry, amok polo, bungalow, jungle, loot, shampoo, pajamas
From Japanese: futon, tycoon, kimono, Ninja, Karaoke, Zen, karate, sushi, bonsai, origami
From African languages: banana, yam, voodoo, banjo, chimpanzee, zebra
From Native American languages: chipmunk, moccasin, tipi (also spelled teepee), skunk, squash, pecan, persimmon, skunk, totem, quinine, avocado, chocolate, wigwam, raccoon, tomato, hurricane
From languages of the Pacific    boomerang, kangaroo, sarong, ketchup, koala, kiwi
In sum, other languages than Germanic, French, Latin and Greek have contributed 6% to the vocabulary of English, while the 4 % remaining derive from proper names.
The riches of the English vocabulary allow us to use a vast array of word synonyms to express subtle nuances in meaning. Familiarity with the origins of the words and their shades of meaning can help you make the right choice in your English writing. Do you have a job, profession, occupation, vocation, or calling? Does your boyfriend seem male, manly, macho, virile or masculine?