Latin and English

            Overview: Latin was one language in a group of related languages or dialects comprising the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family.  Other language families include: Hamito-Semitic (including Hebrew, Phoenician, and Arabic), Sino-Tibetan (including Chinese), Bantu, and Altaic (including Turkish).  As the Latin-speaking settlers of Rome and the surrounding area expanded their sphere of influence, the Latin language spread with it and gradually replaced the other Italic dialects and other languages of other peoples, such as the Etruscans.  The Romance languages (Italian, FrenchSpanish, Catalan, Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, and the Rhaeto-Romanic dialects) are direct descendants of the Latin language as it evolved in the different areas of the Roman empire.

            Latin: Written Latin dates back to the monarchy (c. 753-509 BC), but only a few fragmentary inscriptions survive from this time.  The Romans borrowed their alphabet from the Greeks and/or Etruscans, with whom they had contacts.  Latin literature (and formal education) had its beginnings in the third century B.C. (during the Roman republic), under the influence of Greek literature and education.  It flourished in the first century BC, especially around the time of the first emperor, Caesar Augustus (c. 31 BC – AD 14).  After the classical period, Latin literature had a revival in the early Christian writings.  This period is sometimes called Late Latin or Patristic Latin (named for the writings of the “fathers” of the Christian church), dated roughly A.D. 200-600.  The period from c. AD 600 (after Pope Gregory the Great, the last Roman author to receive a “Classical” education) to the Renaissance is usually designated as Medieval Latin.  With the Renaissance came the rise in the use of the vernacular or native languages for writing.  Latin continued to be the common language of the educated, especially for scholarship, however, and was even used by C.S. Lewis for this purpose in his correspondence with an Italian bishop during the twentieth century.
            English: (Outline history of the English LanguageEnglish is also evolved from Indo-European, but it has its roots in the Germanic branch.  Old English dates from about the fifth to eleventh centuries AD.  Like Latin, it had 3 genders of nouns and different endings for different cases of nouns and different verb forms. In the fifth to sixth centuries A.D., the Germanic tribes of the Jutes, Angles and Saxons invaded “Britain.” They drove the Celtic speakers, who had previously migrated to the island, to the fringes.  There the languages of (Scotch) Gaelic, Welsh, and Irish evolved. English was not without influence from this Celtic stratum and borrowed many words.  English is especially rich in vocabulary and has continued borrowing throughout its history.
            Although the English language as a language is not descended from Latin as the Romance languages are, about 60% of English words are of Latin origin due to borrowing. The Romans had control of part of the island from around A.D. 43 to 410; Christian missionaries in the fifth and sixth centuries also brought classical learning and Latin; scholars from the islands later brought this learning as well as manuscripts back to the continent during the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century.  Very few English words of Latin origin survive from this early time, however.
            In 1066, William the Conqueror of Norman France defeated King Harold in the Battle of Hastings; the Norman French (who were Vikings or “Norsemen” who had settled in northern France and adopted the French language) ruled England then until around 1250. Many Latin words came into English indirectly through the French during this time. During “Middle English” (c. 1050 to c. 1475), the use of gender and inflected endings declined.  In the fifteenth century, the pronunciation of vowels changed in English (“Great Vowel Shift”); this explains why English vowels are pronounced differently than most European languages (and Latin). It was probably more a shift in which dialectal pronunciation of English was considered “standard.” This change marks the transition to “Modern English.”  The sixteenth to seventeenth centuries saw the greatest borrowing of Latin words into English, especially in the process of translating works from Latin into English.  Since then, new words, especially medical and scientific terms, continue to be created or adapted from Latin into English.

            With about two-thirds of English words coming from Latin, one of the fun things about learning Latin is being able to analyze and guess the meanings of English words and learning about the interesting history behind some of our English words and the changes they have gone through.  It is important to be able to distinguish correctly whether a word comes from Latin and, if so, which word it comes from.  Otherwise, your analysis will be wrong.  For example, which of the following English words are derived from Latin fāma and what do they mean: famous, family, infamy, famine, infant?  To check your assumptions about a word or to see where a word comes from, you can consult a good dictionary or a reliable on-line source.  (For vocabulary practice and to test your analytic abilities for the cause of world hunger, you can go to the website).
            Most college and larger dictionaries have a section for each word giving the etymology.  It is often in brackets [  ], usually at the end of the entry or after the initial information before the definitions. For abbreviations used, see the list of abbreviations, usually at the beginning of the dictionary.
For etymologies of words, see also the online OED (Oxford English Dictionary):  (search for the word, then click on the “etymology” button.”)

etymology “The study of word origins and histories”. . . [< Old French < Latin < Greek etumos “true” + –logy  < Greek logia logos “word, study”]

Some other terms related to etymology are:

derive: “to trace the origin of a word from its source; to originate, come from.”  Often used in the passive: “derived from” (<).
[< French deriver < Latin derivare de “from, down from” + rivus “brook, river”]

cognate: describes words that are descended from a common ancestor; (cousins).
[< Latin cognatus co- “together” + gnatus “born”.]

Latin-English Cognates

As the descendant languages of Indo-European evolved, they underwent various sound shifts.  The early Germanic branch shifted consonants from Indo-European.  The following table gives the resulting corresponding consonants between Latin and English and some examples of cognate words. Note that these English words were not derived from Latin; rather, both words are derived from a common proto-Indo-European word.



p            pater

(p >) f     father
t             trēs
(t >) th     three
c            cor, cordis
h             heart
b            bursa (b >) p    purse
d            duo
(d >) t     two
g            genu
k             knee
f (< bh)  ferō
b             bear (carry)
b (< bh) lubet
l, v          love
f (< dh) faciō
b (< dh) ruber
d            do
h (< gh) hortus
y            yard
g            goat
cons. i  iugum y            yoke
qu        quod wh         what
v          ventus w           wind

Cognate examples taken from Carl Darling Buck, Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1933), pp. 121-138.