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4.7: Noticing and Questioning the Language- A Deeper Dive Into Etymology

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    Have you ever thought that English does not make much sense because some words contain letters that don’t represent sounds? Below is a list of words that may seem crazy for just that reason.


    Look closely at the list of words. What do you notice? Write down some questions about your observations.






    Some of your questions may be like the following:

    • Why is there a <w> in two?
    • Why is there an <i> in friend?
    • Why is there an <o> in people and why is there an <e> at the end of people?
    • Why isn’t there an <a> in neighbor and why is there an <eigh>?
    • Why isn’t island pronounced is-land or spelled *iland?

    If your list contains questions similar to those above, then you are like the many people that believe that English should be spelled exactly as it sounds. This belief can be attributed to schools’ overemphasis on the phonological dimension of the language, especially in isolation of the morphological and etymological dimensions. As we stated earlier, we also believed and taught that spelling was supposed to represent sound, until we learned that the main purpose of English spellings is to represent the sense and meanings of words. To understand spelling more deeply, we must investigate all the dimensions of the system - the morphology and the etymology as well as the phonology. In this section, we will look more closely at etymology - the study of the history of words and their word relatives. We will also see that English spellings include letters that are not representing sound but are showing relationships to other related words. In fact all of the above words have letters in the spelling for just that reason - these unpronounced letters are showing their relationship to other words in the family.

    To understand the logical nature of the language, it is important to know that English words come in families and have word relatives, just like people have relatives in their family. Some words have large families with many word relatives, some words come from small families and have only a few word relatives, and some words remain a mystery and we don’t know much information about their backgrounds. When we find out about a word’s history and family, we can use that information to understand the spelling. The Online Etymology Dictionary at (Harper, 2022) is an excellent resource to learn the history of a word and to discover other words that are related.

    As stated above, we were curious to know why the word two was written with a <w>. Examining the word through etymology can help us figure out why. The following graphics will provide you with information about how to read an entry from etymonline and how to find word relatives.


    Etymonline entry for <two>



    Etymonline notes that <two> can be an adjective (adj.) describing how many, such as in the sentence “I have two cavities,” or it can be a noun (n.) representing an idea or concept such as in the sentence “I can count by twos.”


    Etymonline provides the definition or definitions of a word.

    The second paragraph provides additional expressions and meanings for the word two. It also provides the dates for when those sayings were recorded in writing.

    After the definition, the entry explains that <two> is derived from Old English. Old English was spoken about 1500 years ago; its spoken and written forms look and sound very different from present day English.


    During the time period of Old English, spelling was not yet standardized, so it was not uncommon for words to have more than one spelling. Moreover, words also had three different forms - masculine, feminine, and neuter. The feminine form of <two> was twa and the neuter form was twegen as shown in the entry. The use of gendered forms ended during Middle English.


    More information about Old English spellings.


    As you look at entries from Etymonline, you will usually see words that have asterisks * next to them. These words were not written words; instead, they are believed to be the oral or spoken words that written words derived from. Thus, the asterisk represents the hypothesized word.


    Words in entries that have asterisks * next to them


    Within entries, it is common that the reader will be referred to another word. For instance, the <two> entry directs the reader to “(see twain)”. Twain is in red because it is linked to the twain entry. When you click on the link, the twain entry will provide you with historical information for twain and additional etymological information for two.


    Additional information

    Harper (2022) informs us that twain “outlasted the breakdown of gender” during Middle English. In addition, twain was used instead of two when it was necessary to clarify that two was not referring to the homophones to or too. Thus, two and twain could be used interchangeably. In addition, two has the etymological <w> to represent that two is related to twain. Since twain and two were both derived from the Proto Indo European root *-dwo, that lets us know these words are related; that is, they both came from the same oral word.

    As both two and twain derived from the PIE *dwo-, when you click on that link, you will find all the other words that are also related to two and twain.

    PIE *dwo-


    As you can see the PIE root *dwo- produced a large family of words; all of these words have a meaning of two, double, or twice. As you look at the words, note which words you are familiar with and write some of those words below.



    Which words from the word family *dwo- above are unfamiliar? Write those words below.

    When you click on the red words in an entry, you will discover the meaning(s ) of the word and its history. For instance, a duet is a song that is sung by two people or a performance such as a dance by two people. In our exploration of the word relatives, we were wondering how the word biscuit is connected in meaning to two, twice, or double.

    Clicking on the red word biscuit provides the explanation. The < bis > means twice and the <cuit >means cooked. A biscuit is cooked or baked two times. The meaning of biscuit is represented in the spelling of the meaningful parts of the word.




    When you examine the last two lines of words - from twain to twofold - what do you observe?

    twain; twelfth; twelve; twenty; twi-; twice; twig; twilight; twill; twin; twine; twist; 'twixt; two; twofold;


    Do you notice that every one of those words and word parts has <tw>. The words <betwixt> and <between> also have a <tw> in the spelling. Can you feel the /w/ in your mouth when you say those words? In all the words - except for two and twofold - the <w> represents a pronounced /w/. In two and twofold the grapheme <w> is not representing a sound it is representing the relationship that two has with all those other words that have a pronounced <tw>. Thus, it is possible in English words to have a grapheme or letter signifying an etymological or historical relationship to other words from the family. The grapheme <w> in two is like a birthmark that shows by sight - not sound - that the word is related to other words from the family.

    Similarly, Etymonline explains that the word people came into Middle English from the Norman French in 1300 and was spelled either peple or people. Middle English was the time period after Old English. In Middle English, just as with Old English, it was not uncommon to have multiple ways to spell words. The reason for different spellings was that the printing press and the dictionary had not yet been invented. Written materials were copied by hand by people called scribes. In Old French <people> was spelled pople and peupel. The word <people> derived from the Latin word populus meaning "a people, nation; body of citizens; a multitude, crowd, throng," but where the word first originated is not known.

    Some relatives of the word people are population, popular, populate, population, public, pueblo. Just like the <w> in two the grapheme or letter <o> in people marks its relationship to words like popular and population. The grapheme <o> is an etymological marker. In a later lesson, we’ll investigate the <e> and the end of people. That is another type of marker that is marking a custom or norm for English writings.



    The words friend, neighbor, and island all have etymological graphemes (a letter or group of letters) that are unpronounced and mark their relationship to other words in their families. What grapheme or letters do you think may be marking relationships to other words? These letters or graphemes would be the unpronounced or silent letters in the following words.

    Before you look up the following words in etymonline, hypothesize which letters are unpronounced? Look at the word relatives from etymonline and try and determine words from the family that also contain those unpronounced letters - write those words next to the word.




    Begin to gather and write down words that you notice from your readings that you think are interesting and that you’re curious to learn more about, as those words are a good starting point for you to begin investigating their histories or etymologies.

    “Where do Words Come From?” Activity

    While etymological markers visibly represent a word’s origin and relatives, there are other clues contained within the spelling of present-day English words. When we look at words, we might not notice these clues, but once we’re aware of them, it becomes easier to see them inside of many words. While these clues are not considered markers, they still tell us something about etymology. To expand your ability to notice meaningful elements of words, complete the “Where do Words Come From?” Activity.

    Now that you’ve completed the activity, note some observations that you made about English words.

    Reflections on Questioning Naturalized Views

    Now that we’ve come to the end of this section on “Questioning Naturalized Views”, take a moment to reflect:

    1. What have you learned?

    2. How have the readings impacted your way of thinking?

    3. Paraphrase your own understanding of etymology and how it connects to spelling.

    4. What do you still want to know?

    As we conclude this section, it is important to recognize that the practices of noticing and questioning are often done in service of broader goals. Since, as Freire (2008) says, “no reality transforms itself” (p. 53), change and transformation depend on the critical intervention of people. In the next section of the guidebook, we’ll build on the practice of noticing and questioning by using those observations and questions as the foundation towards change.

    4.7: Noticing and Questioning the Language- A Deeper Dive Into Etymology is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.