Re: Etymology vs. Usage

Ronald Ross (
Wed, 08 Jan 1997 10:23:52 -0600


In a recent posting Luke McNab states that English usages varies all
over the world in accent, pronunciation, grammatical construction and
choice of words, and that what "unites, binds and makes coherent the
language of English" is etymology. I find this statement a tad
confusing. If English really varies in all of these aspects all over
the world, than in what sense is it united, bound and conherent? A
second problem is that for etymology to carry out this huge task of
uniting, binding and rendering coherent the English language all over
the world, one must assume that most --or lt least many-- of these
countless millions of English speakers are aware of the etymology of the
words that flow so effortlessly from their mouthes. I don't believe
that etymology has a thing to do with it, because I don't believe that
people, except the miniscule percentage of people who delve into such
things, have the slightest idea about the etymologies behind their
vocabulary, and are therefore quite unencumbered by its putative

I do believe that what in fact unites and binds the English language
world wide is the same thing that promotes linguistic sameness (i.e.
unity and binding) in all languages: our very basic desire to
communicate with other human beings and our need of a unified,
conventional linguistic system to do it with. Other factors, of course,
are that English speakers travel all over the world, study in each
other's universities, read each other's books, watch each other's TV
programs, listen to each other's radio stations, live in each other's
countries, marry each other's fellow citizens, etc. We have a vested
interest in all of this. The different Englishes are becoming even
closer because of all this daily contact.

Ronald Ross
Department of Linguistics
University of Costa Rica
UBS Translations Consultant