Lesson Plan: Word Origins

Posted on August 25, 2011 by


I’ve been giving the same lesson on Word Origins to Buckswood Summer School classes since the first stream. I’ve been improving upon it and generally the kids love it. I try to cover the same topics, but it’s organic and so sometimes I spend more time on one point or another. I also feed off the students’ knowledge and understanding, so the lesson is very different for an Elementary class than for an Upper Intermediate class. However, the basic gist and topics remain the same. The lesson takes up about 80 minutes.

I usually start with my name. I ask students where my name is from, and they guess a bunch of Slavic countries (if they’re good) or a bunch of random countries if they have no idea what other languages sound like. I then ask them why they chose these countries and try to elicit the answer that they all have similar sounds or that you can tell that a name is Slavic by the way it sounds. I introduce the concept of a language family using these Slavic countries.

Then I ask what language family English is in, or what other language families there are. I get a good list of Germanic, Italic, and Slavic languages, usually with Hellenic thrown in because someone has mentioned Greek, and (if no one else has mentioned this) ask if these languages are related. I then offer some examples of how these languages are related – for instance, I used the “lacto latte leche lait” series today, which I consider an improvement over my use of Greek loanwords in past lessons since words can be loaned between unrelated languages. Then I ask about how English is related to German and how it is related to Latin, which leads me into the History of English part of the lesson.

In this part I talk to the class about the Angles, Saxons, and Normans. I use the animal/meat dichotomy – cow/beef, calf/veal, pig/pork, etc. – to illustrate one feature of contact languages, which is a complication of vocabulary. These animal/meat pairs are also great because they illustrate how social, political, and economic factors influence language, since the Old English speaking peasant farmers ended up naming the animals they raised while the French speaking conquering noblemen ended up naming the foods they ate.

I also talk about German and French nouns – gender, and case – to show another feature of contact languages, which is a relative simplification of grammar. While German has masculine, feminine, and neuter grammatical gender, and French has masculine and feminine, English has no grammatical gender (or you could say that it only has neuter grammatical gender).

Today when discussing how William the Conqueror brought French to England I mentioned the phrase “Veni vidi vici” – and then I left it on the board, at the top, for later. I erased everything else after my discussion of English as a contact language, and began the word-building demonstration. I usually turn “veni” into “convene” and “convention,” then turn “vici” into “victory,” just to give the kids an idea of how Latin turns into English. Then I start working on “vidi.” I usually go to “video” first – I elicit this by asking what the kids watch on YouTube. Because Georgian students usually know at least some Russian, I mention “videt” and “do svidaniya” and then from “do svidaniya” I go to the Spanish phrase meaning the same thing – “hasta la vista” – and I always add the “baby” at the end to get laughs. Then I go through the vis- series and the view series (television, preview, invisible, visit, etc.). If the class is interested I’ll go to the *PIE root, *weis, and its Germanic derivatives like “wise” and “wizard.”

At this point I turn the lesson over to the kids. I distribute colored cards – five roots, seven prefixes, and seven suffixes, all from Latin, all chosen for ease of combination. I give the kids time to make words by rearranging the cards and at the end I have them read their lists. We go over the words the kids come up with, and at the end if there’s time left I’ll talk about some extra words that I want to point out.

I like to go over noun/verb pairs that differ by stress pattern, like contract, produce, converse, etc. I like to point out that three of the roots – duct, tract, and port – are words in and of themselves. I like to challenge the kids to find words with four cards – like reproduction, or proportional – to show that you can have two prefixes and/or two suffixes. I like to go over assimilation, using “attract” as the example and then pointing out that “assimilation” is also an example of assimilation. I try to make sure I discuss how the root meaning influences the meaning of the final word.

If there’s still time left after that, I’ll talk about something like loanwords in Georgian. I know examples of loanwords from Greek, Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, English, German, Nahuatl, and of course Russian. Nahuatl is usually the kids’ favorite, because I give “chocolate” as the example. I usually finish by showing how “shabati,” which is Georgian for “Saturday,” is related to English “Sabbath” and “sabbatical” and comes from the Hebrew word for seven.


One interesting thing to come from these lessons is the word “televersion.” Apparently Georgians have created a portmanteau of “television” and “version” and used it to mean “a version of a book or other work of art adapted for television.” I am unaware of any other country to have coined this word, but of course I haven’t lived in any countries other than the US and Georgia. In any case, “televersion” is definitely a lexical item to be found in Georgian English, and my classes come up with it at least 80% of the time. I always tell them that although the word is not attested in US or UK English, they should go on using it because I like it better than “television adaptation” or whatever else we use to describe that thing in the US. Especially given how awesome the televersion of Game of Thrones is, I think this word could gain some traction, and then Georgians could have contributed a word to the English language. New language learners make great linguistic innovators because they are less married to tradition and less constrained by knowledge of the “rules.”

I’ve also gotten the the point where I can do this lesson completely from memory, with no notes, and even work in a number of jokes (for example when discussing German nouns, I might point out that Germans refer to doors in the feminine gender and joke that if you look at a door and see a woman there’s something wrong with you.) Today in one of my classes, when I said that new words are added to English all the time, a girl mentioned “chillax” and I got to explain portmanteaus early and add “frenemy” and “Brangelina” which also got a good laugh. That class gave me a round of applause when I was done.

I’d like to give credit to the course director here at Buckswood for pushing me to take this lesson further than my initial plans and to make it more interactive and organized. Teaching and honing this one lesson has really showed me how important some of the nuances of teaching can be. It’s also great to have students who are interested and well-behaved enough that I don’t have to spend half the lesson just getting the class to order. Teaching here has been at least as great an experience as Activity Leading.