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There is an oft-quoted statement that the 100 most common (frequently used) words in the English language are entirely Germanic/Anglo-Saxon in origin. (Also sometimes said is that ~80% of the 1000 most common are Germanic in origin.) While this did not surprise me so much, I did recently stumble across this Wikipedia page, which lists the supposed 100 most common words, with an attributed source.

A quick glance suggested (to my surprise) several words of non-Germanic (specifically, Latin) origin:

  • use
  • person
  • just
  • because (the cause part)

There may be others I've missed too? Indeed, perhaps due to the entry of Latin words into the Germanic languages in the proto-Germanic period (and the fact they are both ultimately Indo-European languages) some of the etymologies may be uncertain. Do correct me if that's not the case, as I am no historical linguist.

Clearly, depending on the statistical sample used to compile the list, results can vary. However, is there any accepted/standard list of the 100 most common English words? And moreover, is it a myth that they're all Germanic in origin (as I now doubt)?

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Most commonly written, or most commonly spoken? That will make a fairly big difference to the frequencies, I would have thought... –  psmears Jan 16 '11 at 19:53
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Unfortunately, it's not specified. (I'm simply quoting a popular statement.) I suppose separating out both would be interesting though... –  Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 20:03
    
You are quite right, this "all" myth cannot be true: the words you mentioned are all of non-Germanic origin, and they do seem very frequent. I quickly looked through the list of 100 and all other words seem to be of Germanic origin. I noticed that, even at the bottom of the list of 500, the large majority of words were still of Germanic origin, so that the 80% might be possible. I suppose it might depend on the weight of spoken vs. written and the kind of sources. –  Cerberus Jan 17 '11 at 0:36
    
@Cerberus: Ah, thanks for confirming that. It surely does depend on spoken vs. written language (you can further sub-divide those two categories too of course), but I suppose those figures are meant to represent English as a whole. Interestingly, I believe that if you take the entire English vocabulary (i.e. every word in the OED), Latin is actually the principal etymological origin at ~50%, with Germanic (Anglo-Saxon/Norse mainly) at ~40%, and others (largely Greek?) making up the rest. –  Noldorin Jan 17 '11 at 1:02
    
...The fact that less common words are more likely to have Latin origin seems to support two important points; namely, that the French-speaking Normans brought many Latin-derived words, which came to be associated with "upper-class" English (given their rule over the Anglo-Saxons). Then there's the Renaissance period influx of many more Latin words, as I mentioned. Over-simplified, I'm sure, but the theory appeals to me. :) –  Noldorin Jan 17 '11 at 1:07

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

is there any accepted/standard list of the 100 most common English words?

I suppose it all depends on your definition of authoritative, but I think a good start is The Oxford English Corpus, a collection containing over 2 billion words of 21st century English from around the world. Here's a list of facts about the corpus, including the 100 commonest words in the English language.

Neat facts about distribution: 10 lemmas (word forms, is and are are lemmas of to be) make up 25% of the corpus, 100 make up 50%, 1000 make up 75%, 7000 make up 90%, 50,000 comprise 95% and you need over a million to get 99% coverage.

So, one quarter of all words used are the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I.

Is it a myth that they're all Germanic in origin (as I now doubt)?

Yeah, most of them are germanic in origin, but not all.

As you noted:

use is of Latin origin (by way of French) and replaced the O.E. verb brucan (which survives as the verb brook "to tolerate, put up with something unpleasant")

because is of direct Latin origin from the phrase bi cause "with cause."

and

people also Latin by way of French.

Those are the only words that jumped out at me. Of course, most of the common words have Indo-European origin, so they'll ultimately share a common root anyway. See two and duo.

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Thanks for your answer. The Oxford English Corpus seems like a pretty well-respected source. And we seem to have agreement with my original observations. :) –  Noldorin Jan 17 '11 at 20:36

It's usually pretty simple to spot Latin loans, even if they were borrowed in the common Germanic period. Grimm's law means that most of the consonants are different in inherited words and Latin loans.

Also, it's worth noting that English also has a certain amount of words borrowed from Norman as well. Which means that in some cases you have three versions of what is essentially a single proto word: an inherited version, a Latin loan, and a Norman loan. The last two will of course be quite similar, but not identical.

As to your question, I'd be surprised if there are no loans at all in the top 100 words. If nothing else, some of the personal pronouns ("they" and "them" if memory serves) are borrowed from Norse. A related language, yes, but inherited forms would be different from what we have in modern English.

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Yeah, the Norman influence makes things interesting. The Normans of course owe their heritage to both the Vikings (Norseman) and Latin French... I believe you're right about "they" and "them" deriving from Old Norse - I'm grouping Anglo-Saxon and Norse together as Germanic however; I'm more interested in the Latin loanwords. –  Noldorin Jan 17 '11 at 17:19

Here is one site that blends British, American, and Australian English together: http://www.world-english.org/english500.htm

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Thanks. I'm not sure it really enlightens things (I'm asking specifically about etymologies), but it's interesting nonetheless. :) –  Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 19:40
    
Interestingly, the only of the words that I found from my source in the top 100 there is "use". (There's also "people" of course, of Latin origin, and I may be missing others.) –  Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 19:43

In general, the Germanic words adopted into English mostly have one or two syllables. While this also describes some words with French or Latin origins, most of the multi-syllable words in English come from these sources, rather than German.

But the easier, Germanic words, make up most of the "top 100."

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+1. This is also why there are 2 comparatives in English. Cheaper is the Germanic comparative (with an -er suffix which applies to the smaller words) and more expensive is the Romance one (with comparatives which applies to the larger words). –  Alain Pannetier Φ Aug 22 '11 at 23:26
    
@alian pannetier: There are two of A LOT of things in English. e.g. stool (German), chair (French); hen (German), poultry (French) etc. –  Tom Au Aug 22 '11 at 23:34
    
@TomAu: My grandfather (a classics professor) explained that the reason live animals are more often German-derived while meats are French-derived is that Saxon-speaking commoners would more commonly handle pigs, while French-speaking nobility would more commonly handle pork. –  supercat Oct 10 at 16:28

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