Beginners’ Etymology

I joined the etymology game pretty late, and my complete lack of grounding in Latin or any Romance languages doesn’t help. It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I actually got my head around which words were verbs, nouns and adjectives, and that was only through studying Japanese. Having taken the red pill and started down the linguistic root rabbit hole, I now find it impossible to see the world of language at face value. This has crept it’s way into my teaching, and surprisingly I’ve had a good number of students who have actually found my ‘lectures’ interesting, so I thought I’d share some of the highlights that I’ve shared with people that seemed to go down well. It’s all fresh in mind, as the following is all taken from things I shared with a lucky Japanese 19 year old who sat next to my on an 11 hour flight from New Zealand to Osaka…

Unit One – ‘Uni’ means one

This little prefix is a great introduction to the idea of breaking down words, as you can demonstrate the meaning by asking them when they say ‘uno’ in the card game (It’s when you have one card left). After that, throw out a few examples, such as:
– Uniform (it just has one form, right?)
– Unison (people singing as one!)
– Unique (only one, so it’s different to the norm)
While they chew that over, the killer shot is to tell them that ‘bi’ means ‘two’ and ask them to guess what a one wheeled bike is called. Give them a second, and saviour the moment when they tentatively answer ‘…unicycle?’
Boom! Didn’t even teach the word and they guessed it. That’s leading the horse to water and making it drink!
You can pop a couple of cherries on top by pointing out that ‘one’ and ‘an’ actually come from that same root, but the pronunciation has just changed over time. That’s why you can just think of the indefinite articles (a/an) as meaning one. It also makes the words ‘only’ and ‘lonely’ easier to understand, as it’s easier to spot where ‘one’ is hiding.
They should be pretty pleased with themselves and eager for more learning. So, what do you serve up next? I sometimes stick with prefixes and go to ‘re’ as meaning ‘again’, as in:
– retry
– return
– redo
However, the girl on the plane already had this one down, so I went old school.

Unit Two – Proto Indo European time!

My go to is to explain in varying levels of detail that there is an old language, which is the basis of about 60% of the world’s languages. It’s the original gangster that gave us both Latin and Sanskrit, as well as Proto-German, of which us English speakers have so much to thank for.
Here’s how I break it down for them. Have a quick explanation of how sounds change as they move, and easy changes tend to be the voiced and unvoiced consonants. You can demonstrate the similarity by getting them to touch their throat as they sound t/d, k/g, f/p, s/z etc. It’s the same mouth movement, but you’ll feel a vibration when you voice the consonant. If they are Japanese speakers, you can show off a little by mentioning “The tenten you have on Japanese characters actually indicates whether the sound is voiced or unvoiced, right?”
た・だ   き・ぎ   ふ・ぷ   せ・ぜ
You can even see evidence of it in the words ‘duo’ and ‘duet’ if you change the voiced d to an unvoiced t. (Listen to the sound not the spelling, and you might just be able to hear he word ‘two’ in there.)
Think about that, and then look at these Spanish numbers:
– 1. uno
– 2. dos        (double?)
– 3. tres        (triple?)
Gah! It’s the same root!
So, now we have our voiced and unvoiced sounds on the table, and the expectation of some interesting linguistic magic in the air. We return to Proto Indo European (PIE). The word ‘ped‘ dates back to PIE, but suffered the p/f change and d/t change as it came to English through Proto German. However, the same word came to English through Latin, which is why, in the same way that use both the t-version and the d-version of 2, we have two versions of the same word. Ped and feet.
“Do we?” You may well ask.
Sure! Think about the word ‘pedicure.’ It’s a cure for your feet, right? Where do you put your feet when you ride a bike? On the pedals, eh? On your bike, you might pass a few people walking. What are they called again? Pedestrians, aren’t they? And what are they hoping they don’t see in their travels? Centipedes, of course! ‘Cent’ meaning a hundred (century, 1/100th of a dollar). Interestingly, not a lot of Japanese know this but 100 legs is actually also the kanji for centipede (ムカデ・百足).
“So,” I said to the girl on the aeroplane, “would you like me to show you what a real man is?”
Before she could answer, I found some room on the paper that I’d drawn a map with labeled language groups on and wrote the word ‘manicure’. Then I asked her,” If a pedicure is a cure for your feet, what’s a manicure?”She cottoned on to my subtle hint that ‘man’ means ‘hand’ and I followed up up by suggesting that manual work is done with your hands, and to her credit she came back with, “Oh, like manufacture”.
Yes, that is quite right.
One more f/p change for the road, eh? The word ‘father’ came to us through Proto German, which liked the f over the p. Latin, however, kept the p and that’s why we get ‘father’ with a p  when we go head to head with the patriarchy. I’ve heard it’s also where we get the word ‘parent’ from, but I can’t seem to find much to back that up.
Anyway, those are some of the things I like to bring up when I want to show people why English is a strange language, but why it’s also quite interesting when you look further into it. It can add a little spice to your lessons to point out bits and pieces of this, but I must warn you that it does get a little addictive… Do you think this kind of information is useful to use in class? Is it interesting or confusing and dull? If you’re interested in a few teaching activities or just want to support us, do consider looking into the Take it Easy Teaching book of classroom activities.

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