Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Latin influence in English
English has been called a Germanic language with a Romance vocabulary. Estimates of native (Anglo-Saxon) words in English range from 20%-33%, with the rest made up of foreign borrowings. A large number of these borrowings are Latinate, coming directly from Latin, from Latin through one of the Romance languages (French, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish) or from some other language (e.g. Greek) into Latin and then into English.
The Germanic tribe who would later give rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxon, Frisians, and Jutes) traded and fought with the Latin speaking Roman Empire. Many Latin words for common objects therefore entered the vocabulary of these Germanic people even before the tribes reached Britain: anchor, butter, camp, cheese, chest, cook, devil, dish, dragon, fork, giant, gem, inch, kettle, kitchen, linen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, oil, pillow, pin, pound, punt (boat), sack, soap, stove, street, table, wall, wine.
Christian missionaries coming to Britain in the 6th century and 7th century brought with them Latin religious terms which entered the English language: abbot, altar, apostle, bishop, church, clerk, disciple, mass, minister, monk, nun, pope, priest, school, shrive.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 gave England a two tiered society with an aristocracy that spoke Norman French and a peasantry that spoke English. From 1066 until Henry IV of England ascended to the throne in 1399, the royal court of England spoke French. However, the Norman rulers made no attempt to suppress the English language. In 1204, the Normans lost their land holdings in France and became wholly English. By the time we see Middle English in the 14th century, the Normans had contributed roughly 10,000 words to English, of which 75% remain in use.
During the time that the aristocracy had ignored the English language, the natural tendency of the language toward simplification had been allowed to proceed without official oversight. The result of this simplification was the loss of grammatical gender in nouns and adjectives, the beginnings of the loss of the case system from Old English, simplified conjugations, and an overall loss of inflections. For example, of adjectival forms that existed in Old English, only two forms remained in Middle English, marking the singular and the plural, before becoming one form as in Modern English.
Old English had six ways of marking plural nouns. French, in common with all languages of the Western Romance branch, marked plurals with -s. Middle English, under influence from Norman French, had only two ways of marking plurals: -en and -s. The French -s eventually became the preferred form for marking regular plurals. In fact, only three instances of the -en form remain: brethren, children, oxen.
The combination of a French speaking aristocracy and an English speaking peasantry gave rise to many pairs of words with a Latinate word in the higher register and a Germanic word in the lower register. For example, the names of barnyard animals tend to be Germanic, from the names the English farmers and herders used: chicken, cow, ox, sheep, swine. The names of the animals when they appear on one’s plate, as the aristocracy saw them, are of Latin origin: poultry, veal, beef, mutton, pork. Other such doublets include: bellicose/warlike; benediction/blessing; close/shut; commence/begin; decapitate/behead; desire/wish; gentle/mild; labor/work; novel/new; verity/truth.
During the reign of the Normans, many words related to the ruling classes and the business of government entered English from French. Among these words are: attorney, bailiff, baron, city, conservative, countess, county, damage, duchess, duke, empire, executive, felony, govern, judicial, jury, justice, legislative, liberal, marriage, nobility, parliament, perjury, petty, prince, prison, regal, representative, republic, royal, senator, sovereign, state, traitor, viscount. A few words retain the French construction of noun followed by adjective, in contrast to the typical English construction of adjective plus noun: attorney general, court martial, malice aforethought.
During the English Renaissance, ca. 1500-1650, some 10,000 to 12,000 words entered the English lexicon, including “lexicon”. Many of these words were borrowed directly from Latin, both in its classical and medieval forms. Some examples include: aberration, allusion, anachronism, democratic, dexterity, enthusiasm, imaginary, juvenile, pernicious, sophisticated.
The dawn of the age of scientific discovery in the 17th and 18th centuries created the need for new words to describe newfound knowledge. Many words were borrowed from Latin, while others were coined from Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes, and Latin word elements freely combine with elements from all other languages including native Anglo-Saxon words. Some of the words which entered English at this time are: analysis, apparatus, aqueous, atomic, carnivorous, component, corpuscle, data, dynamic, experiment, formula, incubate, machinery, mechanics, molecule, nucleus, organic, ratio, structure, synthesis, theory, vertebra.
Consequences for English
As we saw with Latinate/Germanic doublets from the Norman period, the use of Latinate words in the sciences gives us pairs with a native Germanic noun and a Latinate adjective:
- animals: fish/piscine, snake/anguine, turtle/testitudinal, cat/feline, rabbit/cunicular, dog/canine, fox/vulpine, wolf/lupine, goat/caprine, sheep/ovine, horse/equine, cattle/bovine, pig/porcine, bear/ursine, man/human.
- physiology: head/capital, ear/aural, tooth/dental, tongue/lingual, lips/labial, neck/cervical, finger/digital, hand/manual, arm/bracchial, foot/pedal, leg/crural, eye/ocular or visual, mouth/oral, chest/pectoral, nipple/papillary, brain/cerebral, mind/mental, hair/pilar, skin/dermal, heart/cardial, lung/pulmonary, bone/osteotic, liver/hepatic, kidney/renal, blood/haematic, feces/faecal.
- astronomy: moon/lunar, sun/solar, earth/terrestrial, star/astral.
- sociology: son or daughter/filial, mother/maternal, father/paternal, brother/fraternal, sister/sororal, wife/uxorial.
- other: book/literary, fire/igneous, water/aquatic, boat/naval, house/domestic, door/portal, town/urban, light/optical, sight/visual, tree/arboreal, marsh/paludal, bell/tintinnabulary, sword/gladiate, king/regal, soldier/military.
It is not always easy to tell at what point a word entered English, nor in what form. Some words have come into English from Latin more than once, through French or another Romance language at one time and directly from Latin at another. Thus we have pairs like fragile/frail, army/armada, corona/crown, ratio/reason, and rotund/round. The first word in each pair came directly from Latin, while the second entered English from French (or Spanish, in the case of armada). In addition, some words have entered English twice from French, with the result that they have the same source, but different pronunciations reflecting changing pronunciation in French, for example chief/chef (the former a Middle English borrowing and the latter modern). Multiple borrowings explain other word pairs and groups with similar roots but different meanings and/or pronunciations: canal/channel, poor/pauper, coy/quiet, straight/strait/strict, disc/disk/dish/desk/dais/discus.
As new technologies are invented, we continue to turn to Latin for help in borrowing or coining new English words: altimeter, allopathic. otorhinolaryngology. As long as English remains the language of science and technology, Latin words will continue to find new life.
- Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. New York: Avon, 1990.
- Hughes, Geoffrey. Words in Time. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
- Kent, Roland G. Language and Philology. New York: Cooper Square, 1963.
- McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Elisabeth Sifton, 1986.
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