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Etymology: how history can help us better understand English

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Etymology: how history can help us better understand English

Sound Waves Spelling 21/10/22

Why is there a ‘w’ in the word two? Where did the word yoghurt originate from? Why isn’t said spelled sed?

The English we speak today has developed from several languages, including Indigenous Australian languages, Anglo-Saxon (Old English), French, Latin and Greek. Etymology is the study of this history and how words have evolved and changed over time since their origins.

Etymology can often explain the unusual or unique spellings of words in our language, which is actually more consistent than it’s given credit for1. Take loan words as an example. These words have been borrowed from other languages and usually retain their original spelling conventions.

To see just how useful etymology is, let’s test your knowledge with a few examples to uncover how history and language derivation can inform spelling.

  1. Why is there a ‘b’ in the word debt?
    Debt is a loan word from French, originating from Latin. When it entered English, scribes decided to retain the ‘b’ as a mnemonic and a connection to Latin. These days the letter ‘b’ in debt, subtle and doubt is more of a hindrance than an advantage.

  2. Where did the word yoghurt originate from?
    Yoghurt originated from the Turkish word yoğurmak, which means to thicken or curdle. We see gh for in many borrowed words, such as ghee, dinghy, sorghum, gherkins and spaghetti!

  3. Why do some words have the grapheme kn for ?
    The kn at the start of the Old English words knife, knock, knit and knuckle used to be pronounced . Pronunciation changed over the years and English speakers now find at the start of a word strange to articulate.

  4. Where did the word kookaburra originate from?
    Kookaburra comes from the Wiradjuri language group and its pronunciation imitates the famous laughing call the bird makes.

  5. Why isn’t said spelled sed?
    Said is the past tense word of say, just like paid is the past tense word of pay. Paid and said used to rhyme! This is a classic example of a word’s pronunciation shifting but its spelling remaining the same.

  6. Why is there a ‘w’ in the word two?
    The ‘w’ in the word two is an etymological marker that shows its connection to the words twin, twelve and twenty.

  7. Which language do the words ballet, chalet, crochet and valet originate from?
    Words containing the grapheme et for snail usually originate from French.

  8. Which word originates from French: moose or mousse?
    Mousse is the French word – key indicators are the grapheme ou for (found in words like group, route, soup and boulevard) and sse for (found in words like crevasse, finesse, lacrosse and impasse). When a new word entered English but sounded the same as an exisiting word (moose), early scribes decided to retain the spelling to indicate they were different words with different meanings. Etymology can explain most homophones in English.

If you’re using Sound Waves Online, check out the Phoneme & Grapheme Tips in the Unit Overview, which sometimes include etymology-based explanations. During your weekly Read and Sort practice, these tips can help you explain some of the more obscure phoneme–grapheme relationships. For example, in Unit 4 you’ll find the tip: the grapheme ch can represent (e.g. school, chemist). Words containing ch for usually originate from Greek.

If you’re using Sound Waves in Year 5 and 6, you can also use the Word Origins lessons to explore etymology of words originating from languages such as Indigenous Australian languages, Turkish, Latin, French, Spanish, Dutch and more!

1. Moats, L 2020, Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers, Brookes Publishing Company.

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