Etymology, the study of word origins, derives from the philosophical tradition which is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. It dates back to the time of the Classical Greeks, who were interested in the development of alphabetic writing.
Scholars who study the history of word origins are known as Ethnologists. They rely on texts in languages with a long written history to discover how words were used in earlier periods of history and when they entered the language to discover word origins. Understanding word origins often leads to greater subtle differences of linguistics. Ethnologists study how the form and meaning of words and have changed over time. The origin of newly emerged words is often more or less transparent. However, words tend to become obscured through time due to sound change or semantic change.
When studying a language too old to have any direct information available with regards to its word origins, experts in this field apply methods of comparative linguistics. This is the practice of comparing languages to establish their shared parent language, its vocabulary and historical relatedness.
Use of this method has allowed word roots to be traced all the way back to their origin.
Early investigators of words included the Stoics of the 4th century B.C.E, who held all languages were in a slow state of decline from erstwhile perfection and looked for the first true form of a word. In Spain in the 7th century, St Isidore of Seville expanded on this idea by compiling a 20-part encyclopedia called Originum sive etymologiarum libri (Books of Origins or Etymologies), more commonly known as the Etymologiae.
Isidore's views on word origins were affected by his belief that Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew in Eden and the story of the Tower of Babel was literally true. This continued to be the majority view among scholars interested in word origins through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His theory influenced the research of 18-19th century enthusiasts including the Englishman John Horne Tooke and American Noah Webster. Both were convinced language was the product of historical development, but lacked a non-biblical theory with which to transform traditional speculation into science.
The study of word origins was transformed in the 20th century by Sir William Jones and the comparative philologists, who depended on a painstaking analysis of textual evidence from many languages, which is became a part of historical linguistics. However, the study of word origins is not a practice which always been welcome. In the 1860s, both the British Academy and the Societe de Linguistique de Paris warned their members not to discuss the origins of language, because the topic was so seductive and speculative, it spawned endless, futile theorizing.
More than a century later, the most influential linguist was American Noam Chomsky. He studied language and evolution and the brain mechanisms underlying it. Chomsky is a prolific writer and public speaker on this subject. His books include Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use (1986) and Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2000).
For English, word origins are usually traced using Indo-European language roots and their derivatives, or Romanic and Germanic roots. The English language undoubtedly benefited from its diverse sources. This diversity springs mostly from the English Renaissance, when writers decided to supplement what they considered a basic vocabulary by importing words. Latin, French and Greek were the languages borrowed freely by writers at this time.
The contemporary study of word origins is concerned with both fact and hypothesis, mainly concentrating on language families where no early documentation available. This includes the Uralic language, a language family consisting of three dozen languages spoken by approximately 25 million people in countries including Romania, Russia and Estonia. Austronesian is a language group which is spoken by 386 million people widely dispersed throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
In 1990, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and Yale psychologist Paul Bloom published an important article in Behavioral and Brain Science. In this influential journal, they argued that language must have evolved by natural selection. Tracing word origins can be a matter of chance for scholars, who have to rely on the earliest recorded forms and meanings to study.
When word origins are reconstructed by this means, meanings have to be assumed for such forms as hypothetical and treated with caution. When such a word origin is apparent, it usually preceded by an asterisk to mark its status. However, when a word origin cannot be traced far enough back, etymologists tag it ‘o.o.o.' (of obscure origin) or ‘origin unknown'.