THERE is a constant change in the vocabulary of any language, and it goes without saying that there is bound to be some losses and gains of words. This article looks at how English expanded its vocabulary during the nineteenth century and after.
To start with, the English language of today has resulted from the dialects of Germanic tribes who went to England about the year 449. Ever since its inception, English has taken in and assimilated words from many foreign languages to add to its vocabulary.
A countless number of words came into English from French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian and other languages. Examples of French words are chauffeur, décor, limousine and cigarette; from Italian English took such words as pizza, mafia, studio and casino; from Spanish guerrilla and tango; from German semester, lager, kindergarten and seminar; from Russian vodka, borsch and dacha.
The word automobile is made up from two languages (Greek auto ‘self’ + Latin mobilis ‘movable’).
Some of these words have been borrowed as they are and some have gone through spelling and pronunciation changes. The cosmopolitan feature of English is not only characteristic of the nineteenth century and after, but can be traced to the birth of the English language.
Another interesting method of expanding English vocabulary is coinage or invention. The words Kleenex, Xerox, Kodak are names created for certain products and today we treat them as common nouns. Another interesting invention that brought many words into English is the computer. Today we can talk about a mouse, cursor, PC, network, RAM, chip, just to mention a few.
When a new product comes into being, it brings in new words into a language. At the same time, affixes have contributed to the vocabulary of the English language. When we talk of affixes we have to consider both the prefixes and suffixes.
These are added to already existing words and they attach new meanings to those words, for example, anti-clockwise, reopen, homeless, selfish. The addition at the beginning of the root word is called a prefix, while the one that is added at the end of the root word is a suffix.
Words derive new meanings when we use derivational affixes or morphemes. However, inflectional affixes or morphemes do not change the meanings of words. Look at pot and pots; the plurality marker/morpheme –s in pots does not change the meaning of pot – the only difference is the number of pots.
Some words were derived from proper nouns; the noun boycott is derived from the name of the person, Captain Boycott the Irish landowner. Words derived from people’s names, places or fictional characters are called eponyms. The word syphilis, which we use in English to refer to a social, venereal disease, has an interesting origin.
Syphilis is a character in the poem Syphilis seve Morbus Gallicus, which was written by Girolamo Fracastro (1483-1553), a physician, astronomer and poet of Verona. Syphilis was the name of the shepherd at the centre of the poem and the disease he suffered from.
Other eponyms are: ampere, boycott, Braille, Celsius, chauvinism, diesel, Fahrenheit, guy, Herculean, macadam, martinet, maverick, nicotine, ohm, pasteurize, poinsettia, quixotic, sandwich, saxophone, sideburns, silhouette, spoonerism, volt, watt and zeppelin. It would be interesting to find out the origin of these English words. In doing so, you will be enriching or consolidating your English vocabulary.
After World War I and II, some words came into English. Some of these words are anti-aircraft gun, roadblock, blockbuster and evacuate. Science has also played a big role in contributing to the English vocabulary. Think of words like biochemistry, AIDS, vaccine, bronchitis and penicillin.
Slang words and expressions also find their way into standard speech. What is slang today may be accepted into a standard speech tomorrow.
Words like boom, crank, fad and slump were all slang. Others words are loo (toilet), shambles (mess), brilliant (great), chips (French fries), pants (panties) and bloody (damn).
It is important to know which words are still slang and informal in English and which ones have been accepted in formal speech and writing.
Finally, journalism has also influenced the English language in one way or the other. Sometimes reporters write under pressure and do not have time to search for the right word, so they come with expressions that fit their ideas.
Some of the expressions that are now accepted in English include a business deal, a cleanup, a go-between, out of the running, spike a rumour. I increased my word power in English when I was writing this article. I advise you to find the meanings of all the words in this article.
• Rauna Mwetulundila is a Master of Arts in English student in the Department of Language and Literature Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Namibia (Unam).