The Grammarphobia Blog

When English met Latin

Q: I was just wondering if y’all could write about the influence of Latin on English—the Roman occupation, the Norman Conquest, etc.

A: That’s a broad question, too broad for an exhaustive answer, but let’s look at the high points.

English developed in Britain more than 1,500 years ago when Germanic tribes (mainly Angles and Saxons) invaded a Celtic-speaking land already colonized by Latin-speaking Romans. (The Germanic tribes also included Jutes, Frisians, and Franks, according to various medieval accounts.)

As we’ve already said on our blog, English is a Germanic language; it evolved from the prehistoric Germanic that produced German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, and other related languages. However, English stands out because of its many borrowings from non-Germanic languages.

Although it’s not unusual for one language to borrow words from another, English has been a lexical sponge, absorbing numerous words from dozens of languages. And as you apparently suspect, the major source of English loanwords is Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French and to a lesser extent other Romance languages.

In Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English (2014), Philip Durkin writes that “Latin and French are by far the most prolific contributors of loanwords” to English.

Durkin, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, illustrated that point on Slate’s language blog in 2014 with a graphic that tracks the 14 most popular sources of loanwords in English over the centuries.

The core vocabulary of Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language that developed in Britain, was Germanic. But Latin had already slipped into the Low German dialects spoken by the invaders before they arrived, according to From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time (1998), by the linguist Dennis Freeborn.

Freeborn lists several dozen Old English words of Latin origin that the Anglo-Saxons brought with them to Britain, including butere (“butter,” from the Latin butyrum), cuppe (“cup,” from cuppa), disc (“dish,” from discus), forca (“fork,” from furca), line (“line,” from linea), mil (“mile,” from from milea), pipor (“pepper,” from piper), stært (“street,” from strata), and win (“wine,” from vinum).

He doesn’t explain how Germanic tribes picked up those Latin words, but we assume it was from their contacts, often hostile, with Roman troops trying to control the rebellious province of Germania.

Interestingly, Freeborn notes that hardly any of the Latin words spoken by educated Celts during the Roman occupation of the province of Britannia from 43 to 410 AD “were passed on from this source to the Anglo-Saxon invaders” in Britain. “An exception,” he adds, “was the -caster/-chester suffix for place-names like Doncaster and Manchester, from the Latin castra, meaning camp.”

The influence of Latin on Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150) increased after Pope Gregory sent a group of Christian missionaries to Britain in the late 6th century. The missionaries, led by Augustine, prior of a Benedictine monastery in Rome, arrived in 597, and within a few years had converted Æthelberht, King of Kent.

In addition to spreading Christianity, the missionaries spread Latin, which became the language of education and scholarship. Latin gave Old English such ecclesiastical terms as discipul (“disciple,” from discipulus), mæssa (“mass,” from missa), nunne (“nun,” from nonna), preost (“priest,” from presbyter), and sabat (“sabbath,” from sabbatum),  as well as secular terms like circul (“circle,” from circulus), fefor (“fever,” from febris), plante (“plant,” from planta), scol (“school,” from schola), and talente (“talent,” from talenta).

However, the impact of Latin on English was relatively minor until the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the development of Middle English (roughly 1150-1500).

In Borrowed Words, Durkin describes the language of the educated elite after the Conquest as “English/French/Latin trilingualism,” and adds that “for almost all of the Middle English period it would have been more or less impossible to pursue any mode of life that involved literacy without having considerable, probably native-like, competence in Anglo-French and Latin, as well as in English.”

The language of the church was Latin, while the language of government, the law, and business was Latin or Anglo-French. “The situation gradually changed in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,” Durkin writes, “as English began to be used in an ever-increasing range of professional functions.”

The frequent use of Latin and Anglo-French by the trilingual speakers began to influence their English and the English of their servants, and very gradually influenced the language of the general population, “most of whom were probably monolingual throughout this period,” according to Durkin.

The linguist Suzanne Kemmer has a page on her Words in English website that includes dozens of loanwords borrowed from French (and ultimately Latin) during the Middle English period. Here are some of them, broken down into categories, and using modern spellings:

Law and government: attorney, countrycrime, defendant, judge, parliament, tax. Churchabbot, clergy, friar, prayer, religion, saintNobility: baron, count, duke, noble, royal (she contrasts them with these native words: king, queen, earl, lord, lady, knight). Military: army, artillerybattle, captain, defense, enemy, soldier. Cookingbeef, dine, mutton, pork, salmon, vealCulture: art, dance, painting, sculpture.

(In a 2007 post on our blog, we note that many English words for barnyard animals are of Anglo-Saxon origin: “calf,” “cow,” “ox,” “pig,” “hog,” “swine,” and “sheep.” But many words for the meat that comes from those animals are of Anglo-French origin: “veal,” “beef,” “pork,” and “mutton.”)

During the early modern period (1500-1650), according to Kemmer, English got even more words of Latin origin, including agile, abdomen, anatomy, area, capsule, compensate, dexterity, excavate, expensive, fictitious, gradual, habitual, insane, janitor, meditate, notorious, orbit, peninsula, physician, superintendent, ultimate, and vindicate.

And during the modern period (from 1650 to the present day), she writes, English has continued to get words from Latin, directly or via French. Here are some French examples she cites: ballet, bouillabaise, cabernet, cachet, champagne, chic, cognac, corsage, faux pas, quiche, rouge, sachet, salon, saloon, sangfroid, and savoir faire.

As Durkin concludes in Slate, words of Latin origin “have become an indispensable part of English. Even among the 1000 most frequently used words in modern English, not far short of 50 percent have come into the language from French or Latin.”

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