How did Latin get into English?

It was the Romans right?

Well, ultimately, but not necessarily because they conquered Britian in 43 AD.

The Romans controlled Britain from 43 AD to when they marched away in the beginning of the 5th century.  During that time, they built roads, towns, forts, and established a government.  Upon their departure, the ‘dark ages’ consumed Britain, with the assistance of several invading groups (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, plus Picts, Scots, Irish).

The people who lived in Britain at the time were Celtic and spoke a language that eventually became what we know today as Welsh.  As the story goes, these invading groups pushed the Britons into Wales until a real wall (Offa’s Dyke) permanently created a barrier between them.

Latin had been spoken by the Romans, of course, and had entered the Welsh language as a result.  “These borrowed words are usually for things foreign to the British before the conquest, such as ‘pont’ (in Latin ‘pons’, a bridge), ‘bresych’ (‘brassica’, a cabbage), and ‘eglwys’ (‘ecclesia’, a church).”

Percent of contribution of other languages to English

Latin had been the language of writing.  With the departure of the Romans, that also abated, until the coming of the Christian Church (first) and then the arrival of the Normans in 1066 (second).  The Normans were descendants of the Vikings but had adopted French as their language.  Thus, when William conquered England, he brought the language with him.  French is a ‘Romance’ language–a language derived from Rome, and thus, Latin.

For several hundred years afterwards, French was the language of the nobility, laid over a Saxon peasantry.  The Saxons spoke “English” (though interestingly, the Welsh still refer to the English as ‘Saxons’).  Over time, the Saxons adopted French words (and thus Latin words) into their vocabulary.

The French words didn’t necessarily replace the English ones, but coexisted alongside the Saxon ones or were adopted whole cloth:  “A lot of basic French vocabulary will look familiar to you: le restaurant (restaurant), la table (table), l’âge(age), lefruit (fruit),  l’hôtel (hotel),  l’animal (animal),  and so on. However, don’t be fooled by some words that may look or sound exactly the same as an English word, but don’t have the same meaning. For example, le collège is roughly equivalent to middle school in the United States, not university. Also, sale in French means dirty, and has nothing to do with discounts, and blessé(e) means wounded, not blessed.”

30% of English words have a French origin with another 30% from Latin.  The borrowing from Latin (and Greek) is clear.  From a rap song I found on line:

“aqua” means water, “ami” means love
“bio” means life, “hemo” means blood
“geo” means earth, and “vita” means life

“pre” means before, and “fix” is to attach
“anti-” means against, “inter-” means between
“poly-” means many, while “homo-” means the same
“pseudo-” means false, and “trans-” mean across

“-ology” means study of, “-ism” is belief in
“-cide” means killing, and “-or” and “-er” mean demonstration
“-phobia” means fear of, “-kinesis” means movement

The Saxon, however, endured too.  For example, we have two words for ‘eat’:  ‘eat’ which is Saxon, and ‘dine’ which comes from the French word ‘to dine=diner’.  Another example is ‘go’, obviously Saxon, and ‘voyage’ from French.  “Many [Saxon] words had a single syllable, and compounding was a common practice. Most words with more than one syllable were characterized by a stress accent on the first syllable.”

Here is a list of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin:

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2 thoughts on “How did Latin get into English?

  1. First I must tell you, I love this post. Since I began writing I’ve developed an obsession with word origins, and often look up words just to trace the etymology (much easier now, with the Kindle). Second, I am BLOWN AWAY by the depth, detail, richness, and love you put into every aspect of this website, Sarah! I stumbled over here an hour ago (from the Writer Unboxed blog – your comment on Keith’s post – which I liked). What a treasure trove! My work features the Germanic tribes and the Romans (not British Isles), but WOW. I surely will be back. Congrats.

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