The story of English

Latin is one of the languages that have most influenced English since its birth as a language. In this essay we are going to approach the Latin influence in vocabulary along the periods of the English language to see whether without the Latin influence it would impoverished or not.

In its beginnings, Old English did not have the amount of words borrowed from Latin and French that now form part of English vocabulary. Old English was a very flexible language capable of using old words and giving them new uses.

Latin has been the second great influence on English. It was the language of an educated and sophisticated civilization from which the Saxon peoples wanted to learn. The contact between these people was at first commercial and military but then it also became religious and intellectual. Before going to England the Germans had already had contact with the Romans and from this contact they acquired some Latin words. When Christian was introduced in England, the people living there adopted many Latin elements. Latin borrowings came in three waves that extended the resourced of English vocabulary.

The precedence of a word is usually analysed by means of pronunciation. For example, "a connection between Latin and English is indicated by such correspondences as pater with English father, or frater with brother" (Baugh, Cable 1993:18)

In their book 'A history of the English language', Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable divide the Latin influences in the vocabulary of English in three stages: The continental borrowing, the Celtic transmission, the Latin influence of the second period and the Norman Conquest. But we are going to see the influence of the Latin in English in these all its periods and what kind of words were borrowed.

During the continental borrowing, a number of words were introduced in English because of the contact the German tribes had had with the Romans on the continent. Some of these words were already present in the early Germanic dialects thanks to the trade with the Romans. The Germans coming back from the empire brought with them goods but also words. The words they adopted indicated new conceptions related with things they did not know or for which they did not have terms. The Germans in the empire dedicated themselves to agriculture and war, as some words like camp (battle), segn (banner), weall (wall), pytt(pit), strt (road, street), mil (mile) and miltestre (courtesan) show. Owing to this commercial relationship most words are related to trade. One of the things they traded was wine and we can observe words like win (wine) or eced (vinegar). They also traded domestic and household articles and clothing. An example is the word cytel (kettle L.Catillus). As regards the art of buildings and construction there were words like copor (copper), pic (pitch) or tigele (tile). The words the Germans borrowed reflected the kind of relationships they had.

During the Celtic transmission and because of their poor influence on old English the Latin influence during the roman occupation was limited too. The extent to which the country had been Romanised and the use of Latin by the population were not influential. Some terms could be found in place names but a direct contact between Latin and old English was not possible because Latin words came thought the transmission of the Celts and the Celtic interaction with old English was weak. Words like ceaster ( L. castra. Camp) which today forms English place names as Manchester or Doncaster or words like port (harbour, gate, town) from Latin portus and porta; munt (mountain) from Latin montem were introduced. The influence of the language in the first period was the slightest of all.

The Latin influence of the second period and the greatest of all was the Christianizing of Britain that started in 597. From this moment until the end of the old English period around 500 years later words made their way into English thanks in most cases to monasteries. It is needless to say that most of the terms introduced had to do with the new religion. Some words like church or bishop already belonged to the language because they had been introduced before but the vast majority of terms having to do with churches and their services are from this period. Some examples are abbot, deacon, disciple, angel, althar, anthem, pal, pope or psalm. But the church did not only influence people and language in terms of religion, some terms related to the domestic life of people, clothes, food, trees, plants, education, literature or miscellaneous things were introduced. Words like cap or silk, lentil or caul (cabbage), pine or lily, the word plant itself, school, master, grammatic(al), meter, notary, anchor, sponge, elephant, calend or talent. There was a great influence in the early years of Christianity in England. As the Latin influence always came and went hand in hand with the church new words appeared with the Benedictine reform. The imports were different now and they expressed scientific and learned ideas although some words like antichrist, apostle or demon were still related to religious matters.

The predominating words this period were the literary and learned ones. Some examples are accent, history, paper, title. Plant names like coriander, cucumber, ginger. Trees like cypress or laurel, some terms related to medical matters like cancer, paralysis and some others related to animals like scorpion, tiger. Despite the introduction of all these words English did not always adopt them to express a new concept. An old word was generally applied to a new object or thing with a small adaptation in order to convey new meanings. The Anglo-Saxons, for example, did not borrow the words for which they already had a term.

According to Baugh, as a result of the Christianizing of Britain some 450 Latin words appear in English writings before the close of the English period (Baugh, Cable 1993:86). In spite of this, some words were not used until later, when they were reintroduced. Others were fully accepted and incorporated into the language then.

Before the Norman Conquest, Latin was the language used by the church and the one of scholarship, international communication and administration but after the conquest it was replaced by French.

The Norman Conquest was the period in which a larger number of Latin borrowings were introduced. In this period we include the words borrowed from French (a language derived from Latin) and those directly borrowed from Latin itself, although they were less popular that the French and usually obtained their admission through written language.

In the 13th and 14th centuries England could have spoken three languages: English, French and Latin. Latin was also the principal channel through which Greek words reached English. The 14th and 15th were really prolific in Latin borrowings. Some of them were conspiracy, distract, frustrate or history among many other common terms used in everyday speech. In Middle English the influx of French words predisposed English speakers to borrow words from other languages.

As Barbara Strang mentioned in her book 'A history of English' it remains to note that from this super abundant wealth English has discarded a number of items picked up, jackdaw-wise, more for glitter than for use and that this was particularly noticeable among the Latin words of the 16c. (Strang 1989:129)

The Renaissance in the 16th century and the revival of classical learning made the number of Latin borrowings increase. The peak period occurred between 1580 and 1600. During the Renaissance around 10,000 to 12,000 words entered the English vocabulary, including the word lexicon. Some of those words were: allusion, democratic, enthusiasm or imaginary. Many of these words came by means of French because in Middle English Romanic elements were Gallicized but in Modern English they came directly from Latin. In relation to this, Barbara Strang said that "we cannot always be certain whether a word is a direct loan from Latin or mediated by French" (Strang 1989:186).

During the industrial age in the 17th and 18th centuries many words were borrowed from Latin to describe the new developments and discoveries and some words were also created from Latin roots. Despite this, there was also a Latin diction, a purist movement which rejected the use of loans and promoted the creation of new technical terms from native elements. That movement involved the writers that had been brought up in the tradition of the classics who glorified and made stronger the Saxon element of the language. For them, the Latin and French words were very literary and abstract and they rejected them.

Robertson and Cassidy say that English has been exposed to Latin influence throughout its history but the Latin borrowings found in our days are far smaller than might have been expected (Robertson and Cassidy 1954:152).

In our days it is important to mention that the most part of the modern and technique words in English, those related to computers, derive from Latin roots and not from Germanic roots. For example, the word computer is a derivation of the Latin verb computare which means count or calculate. The word delete, which means 'to erase what is written in a computer', comes from the Latin verb delere, which means to erase. Curiously, those people who have studied Latin know that the second person of the imperative of the verb delere is delete.

Robertson and Cassidy also recognise this influence and say that 'in present day technical and scientific English, Latin shares with Greek the source of a host of new coinages, or of few applications of words already adopted' (Robertson and Cassidy 1954:155).

To know exactly how many Latin words have been borrowed into English is impossible. What we can know is how many of them are part of the language and are more used. Robertson and Cassidy again support this and said that this is not a matter merely of the number of words borrowed, for in that respect, Latin, at least, is ahead of French. What it means is that far more of the French words have become a part of the essential core of modern English" (Robertson and Cassidy 1954:155)

After all these explanations about the Latin influence throughout the English language history we come to the point in which we have to decide whether English would be an impoverished language without Latin.

After taking into account that the vast majority of influence upon English has come from French -a Romanic language that is derived from Latin- and Latin itself, we can say that English would be a poor language in these days if Latin had not existed or had any kind of presence in England. Without Latin, English would not have either the Greek influence which came by means of the French language nor the actual terms related to technology, medicine and those which have been in use for so many years now. Given this, if we take a look at dictionaries around 80% of the entries are borrowings. Most of them are likely to come from Latin, and of those words more than half are bound to have come through French. Another important number will have come directly or indirectly through Latin from Greek. Thanks to these influences McCrum. R, Cran. W and MacNeil. R have stated that:

The statistics of English are astonishing. Of all the world's languages (which now number some 2,700), it is arguably the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued. According to traditional estimates, neighboring German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, including such Franglais as le snacque-barre and le hit-parade. (McCrum. R, Cran. W, MacNeil. R 1992:1)

In conclusion I think that English would be an impoverished language without the influence of Latin because I consider that the number of Latin or Latinate words used in the language in our period is quite important despite the fact that many Latin terms introduced in other periods stopped being used or were substituted by others. The issue of the substitution of Latin elements for other can also be discussed because some of them were adapted and given an English form and others were readapted after the influence of French and again an indirect influence of Latin.

Without considering French as a way through which Latin has influenced I would also say that the Latin influence in the English vocabulary would be important and it without it it would be impoverished too but in a minor way.

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND SOURCES

  • Baugh, A.C, and Cable,T. (1993) A history of the English language. Padstow: TJ Press
  • Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal and Phillip A.Shaw (2009) The English Language: A Historical Introduction. New York: Cambridge.
  • McCrum. R, Cran. W, MacNeil. R (1992) The Story of English. New York: Penguin.
  • Robertson, S. And Cassidy, F.G (1954) The Development of Modern English. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall INC.
  • Strang, Barbara (1989) A History of English. Cambridge: Routledge.
  • ELECTRONIC RESOURCES

  • An English History and its Development: website at http://www.wordinfo.info/words/index/info/view_unit/4197/?letter=E&spage=4.
  • Latin Influence in English: website at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_influence_in_English.
  • The influences of Old English: website at http://www.orbilat.com/Influences_of_Romance/English/RIFL-English-Latin-The_Inflluences_on_Old_English.html.

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