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Trying to Make Sense of the English Language

For many reasons (most of them too ugly to go into here), English is a pretty tough language to learn. If you're a native speaker of English, you're probably familiar with the idiosyncrasies that make the language so downright mind-boggling. If you're a nonnative speaker, you may lack the familiarity that native speakers have. Either way, the following sections offer a very basic explanation for why English words are the way they are. Understanding how English words are formed and where they come from can help when you come up against unfamiliar words.

Borrowing words from other speakers

One of the things that makes the English language so rich (and sometimes so overwhelming) is that English words come from — or are influenced by — lots of different languages.

The English language is essentially a Germanic language. (Other Germanic languages are German, Dutch, Flemish, and the Scandinavian languages.) English has a lot of words that reach back to its German roots: ox, cow, meadow, grass, pig, king, knife, knight, and skirmish are just a few. But, being the accommodating language that it is, English absorbed and adopted words (and parts of words) from lots of other languages, too, like Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish.

Tree, for example, comes from Old German. In English, the word tree means, well, "tree." We also use the word arbor, which is the Latin word for tree, to mean "tree." Arbor Day is a day for planting trees. So, in English, if you know what tree means, and you know that arbor is another word for tree, you know that anytime you see arbor in a word, that word has something to do with trees. What it has to do with trees depends on what prefixes and suffixes the word uses (the topic of the next section).

English has adopted numerous words from other languages. (Garage, for example, is actually a French word; piano is an Italian word.) And if English didn't adopt the whole word, as is the case with many Greek and Latin words, it probably took parts of it. Hexagon uses two Greek elements: hexa meaning "six," and gon meaning "angles." Triumvirate uses Latin elements: trium meaning "three," vir meaning "man," and -ate, a suffix meaning "acted upon in a specific way." A hexagon is a six-sided object; a triumvirate is a group of three people who are in power in some context.

Breaking out word elements: Prefixes, roots, and suffixes

A strong understanding of common prefixes, roots, and suffixes can go a long way toward improving your vocabulary. The root is a word's foundation. Prefixes and suffixes are elements that are attached to the root to shape the word's meaning. For example, one of the most common prefixes is un-, which means "not or against." Stick that prefix in front of almost any word, and you have that word's opposite:

patriotic --> unpatriotic (not patriotic)

predictable --> unpredictable (not able to be predicted)

reliable --> unreliable (not reliable)

Suffixes come at the end of the word and usually indicate what part of speech the word is. (Knowing the part of speech is important, not only for defining a word but also for using it correctly.) Using the earlier example of the Latin root arbor (meaning "tree"), you can assemble a lot of different words simply by attaching different suffixes:

  • Arboreous uses the suffix -ous, which means "full of." So that word means — you guessed it — "full of trees." The -ous suffix makes adjectives (adjectives modify people, places, or things):

Correct: The terrain was dark and arboreous.

Incorrect: If a tree falls in the arboreous and no one is around to hear, does it still make a noise?

  • Arboreal means "of or relating to trees." The suffix -al means "of or relating to" and turns words into adjectives:

Correct: Arboreal animals live in trees.

Incorrect: The animal lives in an arboreal.

  • An arborist is one who works with and cares for trees. The suffix -ist means "one who does." As such, -ist makes the word a noun.

Correct: We had to call in an arborist to help us transplant the trees in the back yard.

Incorrect: The arborist book shows all kinds of trees.

Both prefixes and suffixes modify the root. By knowing what each element means, you can get a general idea of the word's definition, which is often all you need to make sense of what's being said or read.

Assembling blended words

In addition to taking words wholesale from other languages and combining roots with prefixes and suffixes to make words, English also creates words by sticking two complete words together. By knowing what each word means by itself, you can get a general idea of what the combined (or compound)word means. Check out these examples:

backbone = spine

freshman = first-year student

eggshell = exterior of an egg

cost-effective = economical

bedspread = comforter

Sometimes, when the words come together, a few letters get squeezed out. These types of words are called portmanteau words:

agriculture + business = agribusiness (business related to farming)

basket + cart = bascart (shopping cart)

cafeteria + auditorium = cafetorium (area used as both a cafeteria and an auditorium)

tangerine + lemon = tangemon (hybrid fruit of a tangerine and a lemon)

You may not use any of these hybrid words every day, but seeing how they're composed can help you decipher other portmanteau words you come across.

Figuring out English oddities, peculiarities, and quirks

Here's the rub — and it's a particularly abrasive one for people who are learning English as a second language: Sometimes, there's no way, other than context, to tell what an English word means. Why? Because English is full of oddities.

The result of such a rich linguistic heritage — English words, German words, French words, Spanish words, Greek and Latin words, word parts from everywhere, combined words, blended words, and so on — is that the English language has few rules you can rely on all the time:

  • Many words spelled similarly don't sound alike. Bomb, comb, and womb don't rhyme with each other: You say "bom,""kohm,"and "woom."Sometimes, words spelled exactly the same are pronounced differently: tear (teer), "a teardrop," and tear (tehr), "to rip," for example.
  • Many words spelled differently do sound alike: Write, right, and rite are all pronounced the same but mean different things. These types of words are called homophones.
  • One word can have various meanings: Pool (the place to swim), pool (the billiards game), pool (to put together) — and that's not even all of the definitions of pool. These types of words are called homonyms, and English is absolutely full of them.

These types of odd words plague all English speakers, native and otherwise. When you come up against them, the best you can do is use the context of what is being said or written, or, if you still aren't sure, head to a dictionary.

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