Latin influence in English

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Latin and Romance (mainly French and Italian) influence in English reach 58% of the total vocabulary

English is a Germanic language, having a grammar and core vocabulary inherited from Proto-Germanic. However, a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.

Word origins

A computerised survey of about 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd ed.) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973)[1] that estimated the origin of English words as follows:

Influences in English vocabulary

A survey by Joseph M. Williams in Origins of the English Language of 10,000 words taken from several thousand business letters gave this set of statistics:[2]

  • French (langue d'oïl): 41%
  • "Native" English: 33%
  • Latin: 15%
  • Old Norse: 5%
  • Dutch: 1%
  • Other: 5%[3]

For editional references, see

Early Middle Ages

The Germanic tribes who would later give rise to the English language (the Angles, Saxon 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 (what is known as the Continental or Zero Period): anchor, butter, camp, cheese, chest, cook, copper, devil, dish, fork, gem, inch, kitchen, mile, mill, mint (coin), noon, pillow, pound (unit of weight), punt (boat), sack, street, wall, wine. Cognates of virtually all of these English words exist in the other Germanic languages.

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, candle, clerk, mass, minister, monk, nun, pope, priest, school, shrive. Some of these words are ultimately of Greek origin, as much of the technical language of Christianity developed from the Greek of the New Testament and the works of those Fathers of the Church who wrote in Greek.

During this time, the Catholic Church had great influence on the development and expansion of the Old English language. Catholic monks mainly wrote or copied text in Latin, the prevalent Medieval lingua franca of Europe. However, when monks occasionally wrote in the vernacular, Latin words were translated by finding suitable Old English equivalents. Often, a Germanic word was adapted and given a new shade of meaning in the process. Such was the case with Old English gōdspell ("gospel") for Latin evangelium. Previously, the Old English word simply meant "good news," but its meaning was extended in Old English to fit a religious context. The same occurred for the Old Germanic pagan word blētsian, which meant "to sacrifice, consecrate by shedding blood". It was adapted by Old English scribes and christened to become the word bless. Similarly fullwiht (literally, "full-being") and the verb fullian came to mean "baptism" and "to baptize" respectively, but probably originally referred to some kind of rite of passage.

Whenever a suitable Old English substitute could not be found, a Latin word could be chosen instead, and many Latin words entered the Old English lexicon in this way. Such words include: biscop "bishop" from Latin episcopus, Old English teped "carpet" from Latin tapetum, and Old English sigel "brooch" from Latin sigillum. Other words came in, even though an adequate Old English term already existed, and this caused enrichment of the Old English vocabulary: culcer and læfel "spoon" from Latin coclearium and labellum beside Old English spōn and hlædel (Modern English ladle); Old English forca from Latin furca "fork" next to Old English gafol; Old English scamol "chair, stool" from Latin scamellum beside native stōl, benc and setl. All told, approximately 600 words were borrowed from Latin during the Old English period.[4] Often, the Latin word was severely restricted in sense, and was not widespread in use among the general populace. Latin words tended to be literary or scholarly terms and were not very common. The majority of them did not survive into the Middle English Period.

Middle Ages

The Norman Conquest of 1066 gave England a two tiered society with an aristocracy which spoke Anglo-Norman and a lower class which spoke English. From 1066 until Henry IV of England ascended the throne in 1399, the royal court of England spoke a Norman language 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 arose as the dominant language in the late 14th century, the Normans (French people) had contributed roughly 10,000 words to English of which 75% remain in use today. Continued use of Latin by the Church and centres of learning brought a steady, though dramatically reduced, influx of new Latin lexical borrowings.


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

In addition to the large number of historical borrowings and coinages, today Latinate words continue to be coined in English – see classical compounds – particularly in technical contexts. A number of more subtle consequences include: numerous doublets – two or more cognate terms from both a Germanic and Latinate source (or Latinate sources), such as cow/beef; numerous cases of etymologically unrelated terms for closely related concepts, notably Germanic nouns with a Latin adjective, such as bird/avian or hand/manual; complicated etymologies due to indirect borrowings (via Romance) or multiple borrowings; and usage controversies over the perceived complexity of Latinate terms.

Most of the vocabulary of pre-school children is made up of native English words, rather than foreign-derived words.

Noun/adjective doublets

As with Germanic/Latinate 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, tortoise (or turtle)/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, ape/simian, bear/ursine, man/human or hominid (gender specific: man/masculine, woman/feminine).
  • physiology: head/capital, body/corporal, 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, lung/pulmonary, 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, sight/visual, tree/arboreal, marsh/paludal, sword/gladiate, king/regal, fighter/military, bell/tintinnabulary, clothes/sartorial.

Note that this is a common linguistic phenomenon, called a stratum in linguistics – one sees analogous phenomena in Japanese (borrowing from Chinese for scientific vocabulary, and now English), and in Hindi/Urdu (Sanskrit, with many Persian borrowings), among many others.

Indirect Influence

It is not always easy to tell at what point a word entered English, or 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, disc/disk/dish/desk/dais/discus.[5]


Linguistic purism in the English language is the belief that words of native origin should be used instead of foreign-derived ones (which are mainly Romantic, Latin and Greek). "Native" can mean "Anglo-Saxon" or it can be widened to include all Germanic words. In its mild form, it merely means using existing native words instead of foreign-derived ones (such as using begin instead of commence). In its more extreme form, it involves reviving native words that are no longer widely used (such as ettle for intend) and/or coining new words from Germanic roots (such as word stock for vocabulary). This dates at least to the inkhorn term debate of the 16th and 17th century, where some authors rejected the foreign influence, and has continued to this day, being most prominent in Plain English advocacy to avoid Latinate terms if a simple native alternative exists.

See also


  1. Finkenstaedt, Thomas; Dieter Wolff (1973). Ordered profusion; studies in dictionaries and the English lexicon. C. Winter. ISBN 3-533-02253-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Joseph M. Willams, Origins of the English Language at". Retrieved 2010-04-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Origins
  4. Lounsbury, History of the English Language, page 42.
  5. With disc/disk some computing scientists make the distinction between disc and disk as being that the former is optical, such as: CD or DVD, and the latter is magnetic, such as a hard disk.[1]


  • 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.