To put the title question another way: Are there more synonyms in English than in other languages?
The simple answer is yes. The Oxford English Dictionary boasts over half a million words, which is approximately twice the combined total of French and German words. These two languages are not picked to gloat over at random, but because they are, it could be said, the mother and father of modern English. So, it is hardly surprising that the progeny of their union is doubly blessed, etymologically.
Until 1066 the average inhabitant of the island we now call, with somewhat misplaced pride(1), Great Britain would have spoken an Angle-Saxon Germanic language, first cousin of Dutch and German, and of the same extended family as the Scandinavian languages. This is why there are such striking similarities between the every-day words of these languages:
And so on.
The most famous date in British history is 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, contrived to change his nickname from Bastard to Conqueror. It’s bad enough raping and pillaging and conquering your way across your host country, but to make no effort to learn the language is surely the height of rudeness. In fact William’s descendants felt no need to do so for several generations; the first English monarch to speak English as his first language was over three hundred years after the conquest. Henry IV, crowned in 1399, since you ask.
Par contre, the common people of England, absorbed French words with gay abandon; so much so that there are now even more words of French origin than Germanic in the English language.
We have not yet mentioned Latin. If the reason for French dominating our language was the arrival of the Norman overlords, it would be logical to assume that the Roman conquest of Britain a millennium earlier had had the same effect. But this is not true. There were only a handful of Latin words in “Old English”; the present high number is due to the influence of the closely inter-linked institutions of the Church and the academic establishments of the Middle Ages.
In summary: English actually has more words from French and from Latin than from its own Germanic roots. This leads some linguists to contend that English should be in its very own language category: a Germanic-Romance hybrid language.
1. What’s so great about Britain?
It is a bit disappointing for British nationalists to discover that the “Great” of Britain is more of a geographical description than a reference to any perceived superpower status. William considered his newly-won territory as an annexation of another of his properties in northern France, and labelled it Greater Brittany, which over the years became the familiar anglicised form.
2. Are GB and UK the same thing?
Great Britain is the island of England, Wales and Scotland. These three and Northern Island make up the United Kingdom.
3. What’s a synonym?
Big = large, right?
A poet will tell you that there is no such thing as a synonym.
And you probably won’t find “extra big” on label of your jersey.
The above post was written for the benefit of the SameSky advanced level EFL class, but recent conversations with students learning foreign languages with me have inspired me to edit and re-post it here. Knowing more about our own language can help to inform us about others we try to learn.
If you are interested to learn more about a foreign language, and thereby your own, we have availability at most levels - beginner, intermediate and advanced - in the six languages that we offer: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. Please make contact here if you would like to find out more details about how to enrol
Andrew Wenger, SameSky founder and director