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Know Your etymology

By Suzannah Young

Etymology. Eh - tuh - maa - luh - gee. 

According Merriam-Webster, etymology is described as the history of a word as found by tracing it back to its earliest form and language of origin.  

“Etymology is just the way words have changed throughout time,” said Vic Andres, senior television and media studies student.

The origins of the English language can be traced back to a family of languages called the Indo-European, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is why English is similar to many other languages in Europe and western Asia. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Germanic languages developed from the Proto-Indo-European language, which was spoken by the native people of southeastern Europe about 5,000 years ago. These languages have since branched out and been categorized in three groups based on geographical location: East, North, and West.

English falls under the West category, along with Dutch, Frisian, and German. 

Spanish, on the other hand, branches from a combination of languages and cultures consisting of - but not limited to - the Phoenicians, Celts, Greeks, Romans, and Moors, all of which originate from the Iberian Peninsula, according to Dr. Cynthia L Hallen from the department of linguistics at Brigham Young University.

Dr. Hallen explains how Arabic is “the most influential language in the development of Spanish.” More than 4,000 words in Spanish are derived from Arabic, which was also the language of the Moors who dominated the peninsula for approximately 800 years.

However, once the peninsula was taken over by the Romans, Latin began to dominate, and thus began the evolution of the Spanish language. According to Dr. Hallen, this is why many Spanish words are Latin based. 

The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that like languages such as French and Russian, both English and Spanish use scientific terms that derive from classical Greek.

Despite the way that English is Germanic in its grammar, “the bulk of English vocabulary is in fact Romance or Classical in origin,” the Encyclopedia Britannica explains. This is why both English and Spanish have similar words. 

Thus, while English shares more structural commonalities with its Germanic roots, the words of the language itself come predominately from Rome – meaning that they are Latin based – much like Spanish diction. 

While it is important to know the origins of our language, it is also important to know the significance of these origins in everyday communication.

“When it comes to the concept of etymology, we just want to be more conscious of what we are saying,” said Andres. “It’s very much a speak before you think kind of thing.”

As citizens of a highly social and increasingly interconnected global community, etymology helps us understand why the words we use carry weight not only from their meaning, but from how that meaning has changed over time.

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“I think etymology is important because if we are not mindful of the language that we use, we run the risk of not only offending people, but just miscommunicating in general,” Andres said.

“The way that we talk to others matters, and the way that we use words matters just as much.”

Being more aware of the historical context that is associated with both the English and Spanish languages can also help us make connections between the two. 


Infographic Credit to Evan Hewitt

For example, the Spanish word for coffee is ‘café.’ This is a Spanish-English cognate – meaning that in shares the same linguistic origin, which in this case is Arabic. The Arabic word for coffee or café is ‘qahwah.’

Other cognates between the English and Spanish languages with Arabic origins include ‘sugar’ or ‘azucar,’ which derives from the Arabic word ‘sukkar,’ and the word algorithm or ‘algoritmo,’ which derives from the Arabic word ‘ḥisābu lḡubār.’

Understanding where these similarities come from is crucial to our ability to communicate in an informed manner. 

The Buccaneer