Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Charles W. Dunmore and Rita M. Fleischer, Studies in Etymology (2nd edition). Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2008. Pp. ix, 236. ISBN 9781585100125. $28.95 (pb).
Reviewed by B. N. Wolfe, Wolfson College, University of Oxford (

The work under review is an introductory textbook designed for teaching students with no exposure to the Classical languages about English borrowing from Latin and Greek. Over fourteen lessons, the book attempts a thorough treatment of the vocabulary and morphology of Latin and Greek required for English historical linguistics. Its likelihood of being the only source of information for students on this score lays a special burden on its contents: they must be self-evidently clear and fastidiously accurate. While the lessons succeed in the first measure, a small number of factual errors may lead the unknowing student astray.

The Introduction (pp. 1-23) touches superficially upon the history of English, highlighting periods of particular linguistic significance, such as the Viking Age and the Renaissance. It moves on to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, with a run-down of the major IE language families.

Lesson 1 (pp. 25-37) gives a summary of the history of the English language, repeating what was said in the introduction, before beginning the serious work of the book with the first three Latin nominal declensions, and their formation of adjectives in Latin. Lesson 2 (pp. 38-50) gives Latin verbs, their principal parts and other forms (e.g. the present participle) and discusses suffixes such as '--io(n)', as in 'regio, regionis'. Prefixes and vowel weakening are addressed as well, and suffixes added to the previous list. Helpfully, here and throughout the book, where a suffix is given, its English form appears beside the Latin original.

Lesson 3 (pp. 51-63) contains sections on denominative verbs, present participles, hiatus, deponent verbs, frequentative verbs, 4th declension nouns, the nature of borrowing from French into English and the relationship between French and Latin, as well as doublet forms produced by borrowing at different periods. In a "Notes" section to the chapter, rhotacism, derivatives of 'videre', and certain interesting derivations are also set forth. As can be seen, "Studies in Etymology" covers an impressively wide range of topics; it does so in a non-systematic way, intended presumably to avoid lingering too long over any one general area. Instead of a section on phonological developments, and a section on morphology, and another on semantics, the student receives bits of each across each lesson.

Although further grammatical considerations are introduced, it is the "Notes" sections that dominate each lesson from 4 (pp. 65-74) to 7 (pp. 99-111). These represent another form of stealth teaching: Most highlight individual words or groups of words, often because of an interesting history (eg 'Fate', p. 91), but just as often because they exemplify a wider point (eg 'prolific', which leads into compounds with 'facere').

Lesson 8 (pp. 113-126) introduces Greek, beginning with the alphabet. This is used hereafter when Greek words are cited, although their stems are given in transliteration. Relatively little guidance is provided on how these graphemes would have been realized in any period in Greek (a discussion of phi, theta, and chi simply refers to them collectively as "aspirates", and implies that they came into being only when pi, tau, and kappa were followed by an 'h' sound). The lack of any indication of the pronunciation of the ancient languages is, more generally, a limitation of this volume, though it should be remembered that the intent is not to provide a window into Classical Latin or Greek, but to cast light on Modern English. The Greek accents are completely omitted except from the quotations which open each lesson.

After Lesson 9 (pp. 127-138) has touched upon different parts of speech in Greek, the grammatical parts of the book are concluded, with Lessons 10 (139-147) to 14 (181-188) occupied by presenting new vocabulary (as in each lesson) and Greek affixes, "Notes" and Exercises.

The Exercises are an important part of the work, and are often longer than the lessons to which they are linked. The textbook contains the information required to answer any of them (much of it handily indexed), so they are rarely challenging, but appear intended instead to reinforce points made in the lessons in students' minds, and serve as a diagnostic for the teacher as to how much they are paying attention. Each lesson offers a variety of exercises, many of which are aimed at improving a student's English vocabulary more than anything else. The teacher may choose, however, what work to assign, and thus adapt the book to the course's needs.

As examples, exercises from Lesson 7 include "A. Analyze each of the [marked] words in the sentences below. 1. These are 'deciduous' trees. 2. The 'cadence' of the marching army shook the wooden bridge. Etc. B. Each of the words below is derived from a Latin word in the vocabulary of this Lesson, but disguised by the influence of French. Determine the etymology of each of these words. 1. chance 2. reconnoiter 3. chef etc. C. Give a doublet for each of the words below. 1. cadenza 2. hostel 3. influenza etc., etc."

By far the weakest section of 'Studies in Etymology' is the potted history of the English language that begins the volume. Some historical grounding in Indo-European linguistics is no doubt required in such a volume: Cognates must be explained as a control on what constitutes a borrowing: English 'acre' resembles Latin 'ager', and could be mistaken for a borrowing, were the common ancestry of both languages not borne in mind. Similarly, a sketch of the key periods in the development of English is useful to account for why the same Latin lexeme may be borrowed in different forms and senses. These sections cannot be neglected therefore, and may represent the student's only exposure to this information, but must not take up too much of the book's space or the student's time. As noted above, the standards imposed upon such brief, summative treatments are very high; some examples of failure to attain these standards follow:

"Old English was a fully inflected language, just as modern German is today, with two numbers: singular and plural, three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter, and four cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative" (Introduction, p. 4). Two of the three assertions about Old English made here are wrong: There was a third number in the pronouns, namely the dual, and a fifth case for all nouns, namely the instrumental.

Page 16, footnote 8 has our knowledge of Crimean Gothic originating "in a collection of words and phrases spoken by the Goths of Crimea, compiled by an envoy (Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq) at the court of the emperor in Constantinople." Busbecq's list was compiled more than a century after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks; it was the court of the Sultan to which Busbecq was an envoy. Busbecq styles Suleiman 'imperator' truly enough, but adopting this usage can only confuse in a book such as that under review.

Finally, an annoying prescriptivism infects the volume's attitude towards English. "Many Latin nouns of the neuter gender end in '--um', and the plural of these words ends in '--a'. Thus, the plural of 'datum' is 'data'. The --a- of the first syllable of these two words in English should be pronounced to rhyme with "hay." The plural of this word, 'data', has been misused in print and speech so often that it is beginning to be accepted as correct. We should say "The data are..."". (p. 27, cf. p. 28 where the same point is made about 'media'). No argument is advanced for why those who pronounce 'data' in English in the Latin way are wrong, nor is the issue of countable versus collective nouns addressed.

"Studies in Etymology" presents Classical influences on English simply and clearly. It will be of most utility to those whose interest in Latin and Greek is primarily for their reception in English. While the historical introductions are not always as precise as might have been wished, they are readable and will hopefully prompt students to further investigation. The book is intended not for Classics courses, but English or perhaps even Modern Languages, where it will be a useful introduction.

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