Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Why Etymology Matters

The question of why some words look suspiciously similar in Russian and English first arose when I started learning English at the age of 11. I was so puzzled by this fact that I asked our Russian teacher to explain the mystery to me, and she told me that many centuries ago, there was a common ancestor, the grandfather of many modern languages. Her answer brought me to even more questions, and, perhaps, at that moment my destiny to become a linguist was decided.

Looking back to my first linguistic insights, I can see how helpful the curiosity about origins of different words was. I started checking the etymology (history of words, their origins) of different words in different languages, and I started seeing lots of new connections. Here are some benefits etymology brings to language learners:

1. Deeper understanding of a meaning of a word. When you track back the chain of a word's predecessors, you start seeing the changes the meaning of the word has gone through. Like a private investigator, you trace the modern word to its roots, and suddenly you see the word in the new light. The history of a word tells you a story and describes the evolution of that concept.

2. You memorize new words easier. You might have noticed that when you were a child, you could memorize poems and new words mechanically, by repeating them many times. With age, this type of memory becomes weaker, while memorizing by building logical connections improves. When you learn a word's origin, you build logical connections between a new word and, perhaps, the words that you already know, or between a new word and words from your native language that have the same roots. The more connections you build, the easier a new word will transfer to your long-term memory. Each time I struggle to memorize a new word (you know how it happens: you have a word that looks or sounds like another word, and you confuse them all the time), I check the word's etymology – and voilà, the word lays down to its cell, surrounded by its relatives and connected correctly to other words I know in other languages.

3. You expand your vocabulary faster. While doing a little research of one particular word's origin, you inevitably come to a bunch of related words. So instead of learning a separate word, you learn the whole nest of words that came from the same root and/or have the same ancestors.

4. You feed your curiosity and make language learning intellectually engaging (i.e. fun). Boredom kills. When you are stuck within a learning routine, you can not progress and you don't make the most out of what you really can do, which is sad. Instead of repeating meaningless lists of unconnected words and getting bored after 15 minutes, you can open an etymological dictionary and learn about the history of the words you are learning. You'll learn much more, and memorize new words better, for a longer time.

I believe many of my readers have set some language learning goals as their New Year's resolutions. I hope these tips will help you to achieve your goals!

Here are two etymological dictionaries you can buy on Amazon: Russian Etymological Dictionary by Terence L.B. Wade and Russian Etymological Dictionary by Vladimir Orel.