I got myself in a controversial discussion on word classification. To my knowledge words can be classified as a) inherited from a parent language, b) inherited substrate words, c) a result of innovation and d) loan words.

For (a) we can consider the English word yard that comes from PIE *ghórdhos.

For (b) the English bard is an inherited word from a Celtic substrate.

For (c) the English word computer is an innovation.

For (d) the English paradise is actually Iranic.

Now from those 4 categories, which words can be actually considered English in a strict context? Obviously (a) and (c) can be definitely labelled English, (b) cannot but substrate words can occasionally be labelled with the inheritors name (e.g. we consider θάλασσα Greek word although it is a substrate word) and (d) cannot be labelled English.

So my questions are the following:

  • Is the statement above regarding the labeling correct?

  • Are there more word classifications?

  • Can a word that passes into the English vocabulary rightfully called 'English' in a strict sense?

2 Answers 2


Yard, bard, computer, paradise are all considered to be English words. You can find each of them listed in an English dictionary, non-italicized, with no usage note saying they are words in another language.

The phrasing "inherited word from a Celtic substrate" is weird. "Bard" would just be called a borrowed word, not an inherited word. (Of course, Modern English has inherited the word from Middle English, but Middle English would not be said to have "inherited" this word from Celtic, because Middle English is not descended from Celtic).

If a substrate influence was far enough back, the word might have been in the language already at some reconstructed proto-language stage. In that case, we might consider a word to be e.g. "inherited" from Proto-Germanic, but "borrowed" since the language developed from Proto-Indo-European. A possible example like this is "path", which has cognates in other major Germanic languages but is considered to have been borrowed into Proto-Germanic, not descended from PIE. This borrowing is not thought to be from a substrate (as far as I know, we don't know much about any substrates of the Germanic languages) but it's kind of comparable.

In a discussion of Indo-European historical linguistics, the only word out of these four that would be classified as "inherited" (implied: inherited from Proto-Indo-European, or possibly just from Proto-Germanic) would be "yard".

  • You are right about my Celtic example! I will try to figure out a better example for that point. However, etymological dictionaries do classify words noting that they have foreign origins. A loan word being listed in an English dictionary doesn't make it English, just a word that has passed into English. The Oxford dictionary has long etymological notes tracing it back to Iranic languages. Another example is Beekes etymological dictionary of Greek where the words are clearly classified by origin: GR, PG, Med, LW etc.
    – Midas
    Jan 19, 2017 at 21:46
  • 4
    @Midas: You are using an uncommon definition of what it means for a word to be "English". The only time most people use such a narrow definition is when marking a specific contrast with words of other origins, e.g. saying something like "'flower' is French, while 'bloom' is English". In most contexts, "English" is understood to encompass established loanwords. E.g. if a word puzzle in a newspaper says "The answers are all ordinary English words", it doesn't guarantee that none of the words are loans. Jan 19, 2017 at 21:50
  • @Midas: You yourself seem to be implicitly aware of this, since you speak in your post of "the English bard", "the English word computer", "the English paradise". Sure, you then go on to say they're "actually" something else, and you're free to do this, but that's not how the word "English" is normally used. Jan 19, 2017 at 21:53
  • I am not looking at a mainstream definition of what people consider an English word. I am talking about a rather strict/technical definition. For example within a linguist environment, if someone asks you to prepare a bulk of English word as an input for a model for mass comparison, they won't get very happy if you include loans from French since that will definitely distort the results.
    – Midas
    Jan 19, 2017 at 21:57
  • 3
    @Midas: In general, linguists also use the mainstream definition unless it's specified that they don't. "Mass comparison" is one specific environment where it might make sense to use a more restricted definition. (Setting aside the oddity of using modern English as the input to a mass comparison scenario.) But if someone e.g. writes a book about "the stress patterns of English words" it will almost certainly include discussion of loans as well as inherited vocabulary. Jan 19, 2017 at 21:59

Either you need to lump things together, or you need to further split things up, or you need to give a reason to point to just these 4 distinctions. Making distinctions at all is arbitrary if it doesn't serve some function. For example, are you talking broadly about the entire history of a language, or are you talking about the status of words right now, in the minds of an actual speaker?

"Bard" is a word of Modern English (defined as "the language that I learned as a child"), which was inherited from later pre-Modern English (defined as "the language that my parents learned as children"), and so on for generations and generations, until you get to the point where it is "borrowed" and is in your category (d). The same for "dog", "portal", "count", "egg", probably "ax", and possibly "cow". Your (c) is not exemplified by "computer", which is based on French, but might be illustrated by the word "Kodak" which is reputed to be actually created out of thin air. Similar examples are "spliff" and "flarn".

You can't presuppose that "word of English" is self-evident. For example, are "tapas", "pecorino" and "guanciale" words of English? I am inclined to say they are, although they have come into English rather recently. Most people don't know what "guanciale" is; fewer people know what a "tanbour" is, but they are used in ordinary English conversations at least by people who talk about such things. The word "x̌ax̌yaƛ'" (borrowed, sort of, from Lushootseed) is not used by very many people at all – most people who make it don't seem to know the name – but has been used in monolingual conversations. I suspect that only one other SE user knows the word.

There is no technical definition of "word of English". You don't want the notion to be defined in terms of "majority of English speakers know", because that would exclude vast numbers of English words ("spline, quark, panoply, masticate, obfuscation"). The core of your problem lies in defining what is "a word of English".

  • Thank you for your input. I think my question is too broad and I need to ask a more specific question focused on loans and the technicality of classifying something as English or not. Basically if you meet a Spanish person and ask "What is the word for paradise in Spanish" the person will tell you "Paradiso". If you ask "Oh, is it a latin word?" then the answer is definetely "No". The same would be if you asked "Is it English, Is it Greek"? In all cases the answer is no, while that is the word those languages use to denote a "heavenly place".
    – Midas
    Jan 20, 2017 at 8:55
  • 1
    English speakers don't generally know the etymology of "paradise", and will mess up the source of "biology". They probably will also say that "yurt" is Mongolian (it isn't), because we only know about yurts in connection with Mongolia. But it would be interesting to do a large-scale ideological survey on word origins, e.g. to see how many people can guess the source of "go-down".
    – user6726
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:29
  • What the deuce is x̌ax̌yaƛ? Google only brings me back to this page. Jan 3, 2021 at 13:35
  • It's bone-dry salmon.
    – user6726
    Jan 3, 2021 at 16:06

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