English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics

Should English dance to a Latin beat?

Q: I’ve heard there was a deliberate effort to cram Latin grammar down the throat of English at one time. If this is true, I would be interested in reading a good book that deals with the topic.

A: English has been borrowing words from Latin since Anglo-Saxon times, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, overzealous Latin scholars tried their darndest to make English grammar play by the rules of their favorite language.

The linguist David Crystal, in The Fight for English, writes about how these Latinists and other so-called authorities “tried to shape the language in their own image but, generation after generation, failed.”

We also discuss the Latinists—and the illegitimate “rules” that still bedevil us because of them—in Origins of the Specious, our book about the myths and misconceptions of English.

As we’ve written on the blog, anyone who has gone through needless verbal gymnastics to avoid “splitting” an infinitive or ending a sense with a preposition can thank these misguided classicists.

Forcing English to follow the rules of Latin, we say in Origins of the Specious, “makes about as much sense as having the Chicago Cubs play by the same rules as the Green Bay Packers.”

English is a Germanic language like Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and German. It’s not a Romance language like French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, all derived from Latin.

“As you may imagine,” we note in Origins, “a Germanic language like English and a Romance language like Spanish are put together very differently.”

Two of the most obvious differences, the book says, “involve word order (American presidents live in the White House, while Argentine presidents live in the Casa Rosada) and verb patterns (both I and we ‘speak’ English, while yo ‘hablo’ and nosotros ‘hablamosespañol).”

If you’d like to read more, we have 20 pages on the subject in Origins of the Specious (look up “Latin, influence on English of” in the index).

We’ve also written extensively online about the influence of Latin on English, including the Grammar Myths page on our website and a blog post earlier this year about why English is considered a Germanic language.

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