In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indo-European Etymology

  • Introduction
  • Etymology Textbooks
  • Comparative Indo-European Linguistics
  • Proto-Indo-European Lexicon
  • Comprehensive Bibliography

Linguistics Indo-European Etymology
Michiel de Vaan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0096


Etymology, defined as a branch of linguistics, investigates word histories. Latin etymologia was taken from Ancient Greek etumologíā. It consists of Greek étumo- (“true”) and -logíā (“study, investigation”) hence the literal meaning was “study of the truth [in words].” As a concrete noun, an etymology is the account of a specific word’s history. “History” by definition, primarily refers to the linguistic history of the word: When did it first appear in the language? Did it develop from previous words, or was it borrowed from another language? How did it arise, and by which phonological or morphological operations? How did it change in the course of time, between older and recent stages of the language? To which persons, objects, situations, or acts did and does the word refer? The last question shows that “history” also involves the extralinguistic aspects of meaning, prompting questions such as the following: In what ways did the technique of plowing change through time? When were oranges first imported into Europe? When did politeness distinctions in forms of address arise or disappear? As opposed to most other branches of linguistics, which focus on a specific level of linguistic description (e.g., phonetics, phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, or pragmatics), etymology takes into account all possible changes in the form and meaning of language. Philip Durkin, in the introduction to The Oxford Guide to Etymology (Durkin 2009, cited under Etymology Textbooks), thus arrives at a more elaborate definition of etymology, which is “the application, at the level of an individual word, of methods and insights drawn from many different areas of historical linguistics, in order to produce a coherent account of that word’s history.” Etymology, then, is not a separate scientific discipline but rather an interdisciplinary practice. The Indo-European languages are among the most intensively studied languages in the world and have been for more than two hundred years. An enormous amount of specialist literature on etymological topics is found in one or more Indo-European languages. At irregular intervals, they are collected in etymological dictionaries; therefore, most of the references in this article will be to such summarizing works. The emphasis will be on the more recent editions and other work relevant to the reconstruction of the Indo-European language family as a whole. Please note that the author was bound by the series guidelines to restrict the number of citations to ten per section. In some cases, therefore, references had to be suppressed for purely numerical reasons.

Etymology Textbooks

Specific textbooks on etymology overlap with textbooks on historical linguistics in general, except that etymology focuses on the changes at word level. Reliable guides on how to go about investigating etymologies are Hirt 1909 (mentioned as a “curiosum”), Seebold 1981 (which focuses on German) and Durkin 2009 (for English). Malkiel 1975 and Malkiel 1993 provide further food for thought.

  • Durkin, Philip. 2009. The Oxford guide to etymology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The most recent guide to etymology. Many interesting examples, mostly from English.

  • Hirt, Hermann. 1909. Etymologie der neuhochdeutschen Sprache. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    An outstanding introduction to German etymology, lovingly written by an old master of Indo-European studies.

  • Malkiel, Yakov. 1975. Etymological dictionaries: A tentative typology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An essay on the choices to be made when compiling an etymological dictionary.

  • Malkiel, Yakov. 1993. Etymology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511611773

    Three essays on the changing purpose and audience of etymological dictionaries between 1800 and 1990.

  • Seebold, Elmar. 1981. Etymologie: Eine Einführung am Beispiel der deutschen Sprache. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    A thorough yet readable introduction, with extensive illustrations from German and the Germanic languages.

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