Color Coding Shows Word Origins In Famous Texts

Who knew we all spoke Old Norse?

If you speak English, you’re a verbal mutt. At any given time, you’re not just speaking English, but Latin, French (Old French and Anglo-French), Greek, and even Old Norse—all on top of Old English, Middle English and, of course, American English.

Yet I had no idea how bad it was until I encountered this remarkable, simple visualization from Ideas Illustrated, which pulled various “English” passages (ranging from Mark Twain to UN maritime documentation) and marked each word’s origin in various colors. It looks like Shakespeare is puking Skittles.

That said, you do learn a few things. By the sheer force of pink, it’s clear that Old English (in pink) is the closest thing we’ve probably got to true English. No doubt, it helps that articles like “the” and “a” along with prepositions like “of” and staple verbs like “is” and “was” are all Old English. And pluralizing by adding an “s” on a word is a Middle English (red) trick—which you begin to appreciate as every word appears to be bleeding.

The technique shines in its contrast between styles. Medicine, famous for its Latin (yellow) medical terms, really does use a lot of Latin! And as American as the sport of baseball may be, American English (green) only shows up once in an article about baseball—yes, the word is “baseball.”

Etymology is a fascinating topic, but it’s generally only accessible (and appreciable) to experts and those with incredible amounts of knowledge. To look up the etymology of words, prefixes, and suffixes one at a time is simply not a practice that most of us will endure for very long. But we all know our colors. And by employing color to tag the metadata of speech, we can all appreciate the history lurking beneath the surface with every word we write.

But maybe next time, we can do it in, I don’t know, the complementary color palette of Ralph Lauren’s summer collection?

[Image: Gerald Bernard/Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Qualifier

    I think it would be helpful for the graphic's generators to 'define terms' a bit more here.

    Linguistically, Greek and Latin branch earlier than French or even the Old(est) written English. Many, not just some, of the words listed here under English or French have deeper routes in Latin, Greek, or ancient German. For instance, what defines 'baseball' as an American form could be its concept, its fresh combination of phonemes, or its almost exclusive use in American-influenced media and cultures. How much of a word had to have been conceived in France for it to be French? If it has deeper routes through French to another language, which gets credit? With a more absolute-root-focused approach, Old English would get significantly less proportional credit.All that aside, I love the graphic - great find!