Assignment on the etymological analysis of two texts

The goal of this exercise is to form an impression about possible shifts in the proportion of words of various origins that have occurred between two different periods in the history of English. Representative passages from two texts of a single genre are used as the basis for this judgment.

The assignment consists of filling out two copies of the Worksheet for Etymological Analysis according to the following guidelines.


Choose two English texts belonging to the same genre which were written 200 years apart or more. You might choose two novels, two lyric poems, or two autobiographies, for example.

In each text, select a passage 100 words in length to use for your analysis.

Find out the source of each of the words. This is most quickly done using the Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition Online, but any good etymological dictionary will do. For purposes of the assignment, the sources of words are divided into the following six categories: Old English, Scandinavian, other Germanic, French, Latin, and all other sources.

Fill in a copy of the "Worksheet for Etymological Analysis" for each of the two texts. A word that appears more than once in a passage should be entered as many times as it appears. For example: words like "the" and "of" will likely appear repeatedly on the worksheet. Record the percentage of words from each source category in the blanks provided. Because the total number of words will be 100, the percentage is easily calculated.

If a word is not from Old English, and its history indicates a succession of languages, consider the word to belong to the most immediate "offshore" source.  For example, if the English word was adopted from French but ultimately comes from a Latin root, consider the word to be from French rather than from Latin.

Old English is a source, but Middle English is not. Find the origin prior to Middle English.

Be careful to distinguish cognates from loanwords in the etymologies.  An etymology may mention Dutch, Gothic, Latin, or Sanskrit (for example) to point out that an English word shares a common Germanic or Indo-European root with a word from one or more other languages.  This often implies that the word in question is native to Old English — not that it was borrowed from one of these other languages.  The date of first attestation may help you to form an opinion about ambiguous cases.

You may come across words made up of components (base & affix, or the constituents of a compound word) which have their sources in different languages.  In this case you will have to decide which component to favor in assigning the word to one of the categories on the worksheet.  Gloss such words with a footnote to point out the ambiguity and to mention briefly why you chose to put the word into one category rather than the other.

You may wish to skip proper names that appear in the passage, as well as words which are, according to the OED, of unknown origin.

If you would like some guidance on choosing a pair of texts, or have questions about other aspects of the assignment, get in touch with your teaching fellow.

Finally, type up a short explanation for the texts you chose, what you expected to find, and what you actually found after completing the analysis.