Every Word Has a Story

1. The History of the English Language

Suggested Learning Intentions

  • To develop curiosity and knowledge about how the English language has evolved
  • To understand that some English vocabulary comes from words in other languages

Sample Success Criteria

  • I can investigate and explain the meaning of words derived from other languages
  • I can explain how the meaning of words have changed over time
  • Reading materials that include technical or unknown vocabulary
  • Classroom sets of dictionaries and thesauruses
  • Access to online dictionaries and thesaurus, for example, Merriam-Webster and Thesaurus.com
  • Access to the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Google dictionary function

Graphic organisers/student handouts:

  • Aesop’s Fable: The Wolf and the Lamb: docx PDF
  • First thinking, second thinking: docx PDF
  • Etymological investigation: docx PDF
  • Vocabulary table: docx PDF
  • Comparing vocabulary across languages: docx PDF
  • Timeline of the history of the English Language (Example available at Reading Rockets

Create a bar graph displaying the number of languages that are spoken by the students in your classroom. Refer to Ethnolink Language Services for additional data on languages spoken in Australia.

Discuss the data and facilitate a general discussion, examining word variation across languages. This could be recorded on a table for ongoing reference throughout the sequence. A table comparing vocabulary across languages is provided in the Materials and texts section. Look for similarities between words from various languages, for example, family is similar in English, Germany, Italian, French and Spanish. 

Ask students to consider:

  • How might languages change over time?  How did the word ‘kangaroo’ enter the English language? Kangaroo (gangurru) is thought to be one of the first Australian Aboriginal words to be commonly used in English. The word was recorded by Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks from the traditional language of the Guugu Yimidhirr people of Far North Queensland. The English used the term generically, not recognising that the two hundred and fifty Australian Aboriginal language groups would have used different words to refer to the large marsupial mammals.
  • Why might languages and word meanings change over time? For example, would people have used the word ‘selfie’ ten years ago, fifty years ago, one hundred years ago? Why? Why not?
  • Why might word meanings change? For example, words like block, friend, game, cloud and text changed as the internet developed; or the meaning of words like train and flight changed due to advances in technology.  

Record students’ first thinking. A 'first thinking, second thinking' proforma can be found in the Materials and texts section above.

Ask students to summarise their initial ideas in the internal rectangle. This can be compared to their ideas at the end of the stage as a record of new understandings and knowledge.    

Present the video, How far back in time could you go and still understand English?

Discuss student reactions to the video and facilitate a class discussion that encourages students to think about how a language evolves. Possible question prompts could include: 

  • Where might our words have come from?
  • How are words born or created?  
  • Why might words change?
  • Why might words become obsolete? For example, 'snoutfair' was once used to mean good looking, the internet was referred to as the 'world wide web' not so long ago and ‘cassette player’ was dropped from the Oxford Dictionary in 2018.

Ask students to turn and talk to discuss each question. Provide sticky notes for students to record their ideas in point form and any questions or wonderings they have. Support students to share, sort and discuss their responses to each question. Create a 'Wonder Wall' to display students' wonderings for future reference.

Explain to students that languages are constantly evolving, and that English is a mixture of many languages. Present a video on the history of English. ‘How Did English Evolve?’ or ‘A Short History of the English Language’ would provide a brief overview. Sign in to ClickView using your Department credentials. Ask students to summarise key points from the videos, and record on an anchor chart to display in your classroom or share on a digital collaboration platform.

Enable students to form a deeper understanding of the history of English by asking them to identify key events and influences outlined in the interactive Timeline of the English Language. Provide a historical text and ask students to examine the language used. For example, an Aesop Fable, printed in 1484, see docx PDF.

Ask students to identify words that:    

  • are the same as today
  • words that are similar and easily recognisable
  • words that can be guessed at using the context of the sentence
  • words that are difficult to recognise or interpret. 

Extend student understanding of the history of the English language by supporting them to research words that entered the English language in each historical period identified in the videos. Ask them to explain the story of each word entering the language. Merriam-Webster Time Traveller provides an interactive resource listing words according to the year or period they were first used in print.

Display pictorial timelines that reference the major phases of the history of English: Old English, Middle English and Modern English, (example available at Reading Rockets).

Support students to work collaboratively to research a period on the timeline. The History of English provides a comprehensive account with sound clips and vocabulary introduced in each historical period. Short passages from this website could be used in literature circles or close reading groups.   

Encourage students to include the major historical influences and vocabulary that was used in each historical period on their timeline. 

When students are familiar with the historical period, and influences on the development of the English language, display a sample of words that span all periods. For example, the following sample includes words from Old English, Middle English, Modern English and Australian English.   

chauffeur

kayak

geography

network

automobile

surf

parliament

hus

hwite

knight

tomato

billabong

hexagon

mammoth

terrible

clue

opera

abandon

computer

train

Ask students to work in pairs to use the think, pair, share protocol to choose some of the displayed words and write a predicted definition. Invite discussion and ask students to: 

  • predict the ‘oldest’ and ‘newest’ words from the list   
  • identify any words that may have derived from another language
  • identify words that may have multiple meanings. For example, the word ‘mammoth’ is thought to be of Russian origin from the area in Siberia where mammoth bones were discovered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was then used as an adjective for gigantic in 1802.

The etymology of some of the above words may surprise some students. 

Note:

  • ‘Computer’ was first recorded in the 1640’s as a noun meaning, ‘one who calculates, one whose occupation is to make calculations’. In 1897 it was recorded as meaning a ‘calculating machine’. In 1970 the term, ‘computer literacy’ was recorded.  It derives from Latin computator (late 14th century).
  • 'Clue' is a revised spelling of clew, a ball of thread or yard. The change in meaning references the Greek mythology, the clew of thread given by Ariadne to Theseus to use as a guide out of the Labyrinth.
  • 'Train' was recorded in the early 14th century as a noun, and around 1540 as a verb.

Demonstrate investigating the etymology of a word using dictionaries and online tools. The Online Etymology Dictionary and OneLook dictionary search are useful reference sources. Select a word and model research techniques, and how to scan and summarise information to complete the Etymological Investigation graphic organiser available in the Materials and texts section.

Ask students to work in pairs to complete an etymological investigation, selecting a word from the list above, a word from a class word wall, or an unfamiliar word from a text that they are reading or have read.

Students could use the etymological investigation, or present their work in a creative and visual way.  Ask students to present their investigations to the class and place their words on the timeline. 

Discuss the major influences on the English language. Investigate the similarities and differences in words between languages. Include French and Latin-based languages, such as Italian and Spanish, to explore links between words.  

This activity provides an insight into the historical threads that link our words to other languages and invites students from all language groups to share vocabulary. An example is provided in the resources.  

Encourage students to make links between languages. For example, medico is the word for doctor in Italian and Spanish, linking to medicine. The French, Italian and Spanish word for tree clearly derives from ‘arbor’, meaning ‘tree’ and helps us to understand the derivation of the words, arborist and arboreal

Support students to use inference and contextual cues to read and comprehend an historical text. For example, an Aesop Fable, printed in 1484: docx PDF. Support students to examine the language used. Ask students to identify words that:

  • are the same as today
  • words that are similar and easily recognisable
  • words that can be guessed at using the context of the sentence
  • words that are difficult to recognise or interpret. 

Areas for further exploration

  • Semantic change activity  - have students work in pairs or small groups to match words with their less-familiar meaning, using the dictionary to check their answers.
  • Students could explore the history of English more deeply and create a presentation to visually represent their findings.  25 Maps that explain the English language provides information and examples of how to display that information in a visual form.
  • Support students to discover commonly used English words that have been borrowed by other languages. Encourage discussion and explanation about how and why English these words were adopted by English. The video, Borrowed Words: How Languages Influence Each Other (sign in to ClickView using your Department credentials) could be used as a resource.
  • Further investigate the similarities and differences in words between languages. Include French and Latin-based languages, such as Italian and Spanish, to explore links between words. This activity provides an insight into the historical threads that link our words to other languages and invites students from all language groups to share vocabulary. An example is provided in the Materials and texts section above.  

Return to the questions that were raised earlier in the learning:   

  • How might languages change over time?
  • Why might languages change over time?
  • Where might our words have come from?
  • How are words born or created?  
  • Why might words change?

Why might words become obsolete? For example, ‘snoutfair’ was once used to mean good looking and the internet was referred to as the ‘world wide web’ not so long ago.

Ask students to record their second thinking in the outer section of the graphic organiser, First thinking, second thinking: docx PDF

Facilitate a discussion and encourage students to share their new insights and learning. Ask students to predict which words they think might become obsolete within their lifetime, and why.

Further assess students' understanding by asking students to complete an exit ticket responding to the above questions. 

Opportunities for assessment include student contributions to the timelines, etymological investigations handouts, first and second thinking responses and exit tickets. 

Aesop & Caxton, W., 1889. The fables of Aesop, as first printed by William Caxton in 1484. [Online]
Available at: https://archive.org/details/fablesofaesopasf02aesouoft/page/4/mode/2up?q=wolfe+and+the+lambe
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

ClickView, 2014. A short history of the English Language. [Online]
Available at: https://online.clickview.com.au/libraries/videos/3716194/a-short-history-of-the-english-language
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

ClickView, 2014. Borrowed Words: How languages influence each other. [Online]
Available at: https://online.clickview.com.au/libraries/videos/3716262/borrowed-words-how-languages-influence-each-other
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Ethnolink Language Services, n.d. Top 10 Languages Spoken in Australia. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ethnolink.com.au/top-10-languages-spoken-in-australia/
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Gardoqui, K., 2012. How did English evolve. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=kIzFz9T5rhI
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Harper, D., 2020. Etymonline: Online etymology dictionary. [Online]
Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Mastin, L., 2011. The History of English. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thehistoryofenglish.com/history.html
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Merriam-Webster, n.d. Time Traveller. [Online]
Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/time-traveler
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Nelson, L., 2015. 25 Maps that explain the English language. [Online]
Available at: https://www.vox.com/2015/3/3/8053521/25-maps-that-explain-english
[Accessed March 15 2022].

Next Step English, n.d. Why is English so crazy? A brief history of the English langauge.. [Online]
Available at: https://nextstepenglish.com/timeline/
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Oxford University Press, n.d. Oxford English Dictionary: Semanitic Change. [Online]
Available at: https://public.oed.com/wp-content/uploads/Semantic-change-exercise.pdf
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Reading Rockets, n.d. Timeline of the English Language. [Online]
Available at: https://www.readingrockets.org/images/articles/art28652_timeline.jpg
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

The Children's University of Manchester, n.d. Timeline of the English Language. [Online]
Available at: https://www.childrensuniversity.manchester.ac.uk/learning-activities/languages/words/timeline-english-language-2/
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Yestervid, 2015. How far back in time could you go and still understand English?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=8fxy6ZaMOq8
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Back to Stages