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Tracing the Language Family Tree

Categories: Vocabulary Research, Vocabulary Resources |

The different languages and dialects of the world are generally associated with specific countries, regions, or even towns. Before there were billions of people on Earth, smaller groups and communities developed and spoke their own individual languages, and when those groups and communities stayed in the same place for hundreds or thousands of years, those languages became associated with the land they lived in. However, not everyone stayed in the same place all the time, and social change from war, commerce, travel, and environmental change pushed or pulled people into different regions, where they’d both influence and be influenced by the new languages spoken there. That’s why English is full of words from other languages, and why it’s often helpful to learn a second language to improve your vocabulary in the first one.

Tracing the roots of English words through their origins and history is called etymology, and it’s generally something that’s done by looking at the words on paper, breaking them up, and matching the pieces of a word to earlier words in the root languages. Researchers and editors also look at how and when a word was used throughout history, and what meaning, or meanings, it has had over time. The spelling of a word will frequently change, as will its pronunciation. Definitions and usage change even more – fantastic used to mean “imaginary, made up” and nervous originally meant “strong and flexible.”

For an illustrated view of etymology, showing the the differences and similarities for a set of words in languages spoken across Europe, check out these word maps. You’ll be able to see the history of society as well as the history of language, and it might get you interested in doing some etymological exploration of your own.