Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Romance and Germanic Vocabulary of English

English has borrowed many words from both the Romance and Germanic languages. They have given English a very large vocabulary. The Romance and Germanic borrowings often have very similar meanings. As a result, English has many synonyms. In certain cases, however, only one word of a word pair can be used.

Charles W. Kreidler, author of "Introducing English Semantics," provides a list of ten words. The words are:

ache, pain
height, altitude
middle, centre
string, cord
dale, valley
mistake, error
strength, force
work, labour
step, pace
sight, vision.

The first word in each pair is Germanic and the second is Romance. In the first pair, "ache" is used in many compounds such as "toothache", "earache" and "stomachache." The word "pain" can be used to refer to a person: "He is such a pain."

The adjective used to refer to people is "height" as in "average height." For airplanes, "altitude" is used as in "We're flying at an altitude of 5000 metres."

For months, "middle" is used as in "the middle of June." The word "centre" can refer to an important area as in "a centre of tourism."

The word "string" is used for musical instruments such as a guitar string and "cord" is used for the net cord of tennis.

"Dale" is not used very much but is present in names such as Glendale and "valley" is present in the name "Annapolis Valley," an area in Nova Scotia.

"Mistake and error" are often interchangeable but only "mistake" can be a verb as in "to mistake one person for another." The word "error" is used in "error correction."

"Strength" is used in "I want to increase my strength" and "force" is used in "The labour movement has become a powerful force in Canadian politics."

Only "work" is used in the question "Do you like your work?" "Labour" is used in "labour union". When a woman is pregnant and due to give birth shortly, we say she is in "labour."

Only "step" can be used in the compound "footstep." When referring to a tennis player, we can say that one player struggles to match the pace of another. One plays at a slow pace and one at a fast pace.

Only "sight" is used in the compound "eyesight" and "sight" is also used to describe one of the senses along with taste, smell, touch and hearing. However, only "vision" can be used to describe a dream or image as in "a vision of the future."

The English language has a large vocabulary. This is partly due to the great number of words borrowed from the Romance and Germanic languages. These borrowings have given English many synonyms but the examples given in this post illustrate that these synonyms are not always interchangeable.

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