Latin influence in English

Latin influence in English

English has been called a Germanic language with a Romance vocabulary. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) 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, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, or Spanish) or from some other language (such as Greek) into Latin and then into English.

Dark Ages

The Germanic tribes 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 words (some originally from Greek) for common objects therefore entered the vocabulary of these Germanic people via Latin even before the tribes reached Britain: anchor, butter, camp, cheese, chest, cook, devil, dish, fork, gem, inch, kettle, kitchen, linen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, pillow, pin, pound, punt (boat), sack, street, 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.

Middle Ages

The Norman Conquest of 1066 gave England a two tiered society with an aristocracy that spoke Anglo-Norman 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 a Norman that became progressively Gallicised through contact with French. However, the Norman rulers made no attempt to suppress the English language, apart from not using it at all in their court. In 1204, the Anglo-Normans lost their continental territories in Normandy and became wholly English. By the time Middle English arises as the dominant language in the late 14th century, the Normans had contributed roughly 10,000 words to English, of which 75% remain in use. Continued use of Latin by the Church and centres of learning brought new Latin influence.


During the English Renaissance, from around 1500–1650, some 10,000 to 12,000 words entered the English lexicon, including "lexicon". Some examples include: aberration, allusion, anachronism, democratic, dexterity, enthusiasm, imaginary, juvenile, pernicious, sophisticated. Many of these words were borrowed directly from Latin, both in its classical and medieval forms. In turn, Late Latin also included borrowings from Greek.

Industrial Age

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: apparatus, aqueous, carnivorous, component, corpuscle, data, experiment, formula, incubate, machinery, mechanics, molecule, nucleus, organic, ratio, structure, vertebra.

Consequences for English

As 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: ant/formic, bee/apian, bird/avian, crow/corvine, cod/gadoid, carp/cyprine, fish/piscine, gull/larine, wasp/vespine, butterfly/papilionaceous, worm/vermian, spider/arachnid, snake/anguine, turtle (tortoise in British English)/testudinal, cat/feline, rabbit/cunicular, hare/leporine, dog/canine, deer/cervine, reindeer/rangiferine, fox/vulpine, wolf/lupine, goat/caprine, sheep/ovine, swan/cygnean, duck/anatine, starling/sturnine, goose/anserine, ostrich/struthious, horse/equine, chicken/gallinaceous, cattle/bovine, pig/porcine, whale/cetacean, kangaroo/macropine, ape/simian, bear/ursine, man/human or hominid ("gender specific": man/masculine, woman/feminine).
*physiology: head/capital, ear/aural, tooth/dental, tongue/lingual, lips/labial, neck/cervical, finger/digital, hand/manual, arm/brachial, foot/pedal, sole of the foot/plantar, leg/crural, eye/ocular or visual, mouth/oral, chest/pectoral, nipple/papillary, brain/cerebral, mind/mental, nail/ungual, hair/pilar, heart/cardial, lung/pulmonary, bone/osteotic, liver/hepatic, kidney/renal, blood/sanguine.
*astronomy: moon/lunar, sun/solar, earth/terrestrial, star/stellar.
*sociology: son or daughter/filial, mother/maternal, father/paternal, brother/fraternal, sister/sororal, wife/uxorial.
*other: book/literary, edge/marginal, fire/igneous, water/aquatic, wind/vental, ice/glacial, boat/naval, house/domestic, door/portal, town/urban, light/optical, sight/visual, tree/arboreal, marsh/paludal, sword/gladiate, king/regal, soldier/military, bell/tintinnabulary.

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, Latin continues to be mined for borrowing or coining new English words: altimeter.


*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.

ee also

*List of Latin words with English derivatives
*List of Germanic and Latinate equivalents in English
*Inkhorn term
*Classical compound

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