Etymology is the study of the origins and history or development of words and phrases.

Is it considered though to be part of the study of linguistics or is it considered to a separate field like we might consider say style guides to not be part of linguistics? Is etymology perhaps considered part of lexicography which might not be thought of to be a field within linguistics?

What exactly is the relationship between etymology and linguistics?

5 Answers 5


When etymology as such is covered in a linguistics curriculum, it is usually in a historical linguistics class, and I think what current research there is (not so much as there used to be, for sure) is often done by people who would consider themselves doing historical linguistics of some kind. Much of this kind of research is now under the heading of "semantic change", and is more theoretically motivated than traditional "etymology". I.e. the interesting questions aren't what are the histories of particular words, but rather, what explains the attested/possible patterns of semantic change. I think there is also a certain amount of less historically oriented work on semantic change in pidgins/creoles and that kind of thing. In general you may get the impression that it isn't part of linguistics because though it is a part of linguistics, that part is more or less outside the mainstream as represented in the USA.

(Contra Alenanno's answer, I'm not really aware of any researchers, courses, or conferences that cover "lexicology" as any kind of coherent subfield in the way that the other things in that chart are.)

  • This answer is basically on the money. The difference between etymology/philology and historical linguistics is the former describes what happened, while the latter gives a theory of why it happened. (Of course, the two questions of what and why are intertwined; the difference is which is considered to be constitutive of the inquiry.)
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 23:43
  • @kgr: We can discuss about the role of Lexicology, but maybe you should bring more than just not being aware of it.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 8:03
  • @Alenanno, can you point to any active researchers, courses present across many (or any) departments, journals, or conferences on "lexicology"? I don't mean this as a slight on the study of lexical items, I actually do some work on lexical semantics myself, but that just isn't the way the field is divided up as currently practiced, and I felt uncomfortable letting the misinformation stand. There are plenty of active researchers who do study some of the things that the (somewhat bizarre) wiki page for "lexicology" says they should, but they are not "lexicologists".
    – kgr
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 11:42

Technically it belongs to Lexicology, but since this last one in turn belongs to Linguistics, you could say that Etymology is part of it as well.

Plus, Lexicography is actually under Lexicology. See the following scheme:

enter image description here

N.B. I put the major disciplines for Linguistics. I might have forgotten some of them, though. If you notice some major discipline that is missing, I can edit the image.

  • It's funny how some large areas are just totally left out. The thing called 'lexicology' totally belongs within linguistics but not already in any of the existing 'black' items in your diagram (or even mentioned in say the wikipedia article on linguistics
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 14:30
  • Yes, I noticed it's not mentioned there, but it's mentioned in the italian wiki article. I suppose this means it's not as official or "clear-cut" as the other ones, considering it overlaps other fields — like Semantics — but still it belongs to Linguistics. My scheme didn't mean to be the ultimate scheme for it, just something to show the basic structure.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 14:40

As a first approximation, one could probably claim that etymology is the diachronic dimension of lexicology but that would probably be too reductive. This is because to fulfil its role, etymology draws on many other disciplines of linguistics.

For instance, etymology relies heavily on phonology to justify successive forms of words because it needs laws to justify how phonemes morph into one another or even disappear altogether. This in turn even allows the reconstruction of bygone pronunciations and unattested word roots.

It also builds on morphology to explain how people evolve the words they need from the ones they have and semantics because meanings shift no less than phonemes.

It is thus both a fundamental component of and an indispensable contributor to historical linguistics and works in this respect hand in hand with hydronymy and toponymy.

Because historical linguistics adds the time dimension to synchronic linguistics it is one of the litmus tests allowing us to prove or disprove theories aiming at explaining how things are the way they are today as much as at predicting how they might turn out tomorrow.

As such I shall venture that etymology is not only a part of linguistics but even a central one.


A linguist who devotes their time to studying the phonetics (i.e. a phonetician) of an under-documented language, is still a linguist, despite their narrow focus.

Likewise, a linguist who devotes their time to documenting the lexical environment of a language (i.e. a lexicographer) is still a linguist.

If a question were posed to a phonetician about the occurrence of an alternation between two phonemes in language X, the question would be legitimate and relevant to linguists, even if the audience is small. So I am inclined to say that questions about specific word etymologies in a language X, would be well within the realm of linguistics to provide an educated answer, and hopefully expound on the example with interesting/relevant information.

  • The only people I know of that study the etymology of single words (and placenames) are historians and specialists of the language that has the word or placename in question. Where are the books and papers these days that concentrate on a single word?
    – kaleissin
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 7:37

Words and concepts don't necessarily correspond for social reasons.

The word 'etymology' is about individual word histories, which is definitely a part of linguistics.

But that doesn't mean there is a sub-section of academic linguistics departments with faculty members who primarily call themselves 'etymologists'. Dictionary makers might have specialists in etymology (which would require all sorts of linguistics and particular language training).

The people who 'do' etymologies might have more training in multiple specific languages. It doesn't seem likely that they would be a member of a Linguistics department's faculty (at least not in the US). Philology might be a label for a faculty that culturally etymology falls under elsewhere.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.