Latin loanwords in English

Term Paper 2007 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



I. Introduction

II. Old English
1. The Continental period
2. The settlement period
3. Christianisation

III. Middle English

IV. Early Modern English and Modern English

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Latin has always had a major influence on the English lexicon, from the Germanic period – even during the continental era, before the Germanics reached the British Isles - until today. It has also been the first and most consistent of the many languages English has borrowed from, during its gradual development into what we nowadays know as ‘English’. More than 300 words have even “survived” into Modern English in their original Latin form, words such as actor, labor, elevator and vertigo.

The accent of this paper, which will explore the respective loans English made in its various historical periods, will be on Old English, as it can most interestingly be divided into three periods of borrowing from Latin, the third of which, according to Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, “marks the real beginning of the English habit to freely incorporate foreign elements into its vocabulary.”[1]

II. Old English

The total number of lexical items borrowed in this period is estimated as about 500. The different ways by which they entered English will be explored in the following sections.

Generally, it has to be remarked that during the whole Old English period, Latin was regarded highly. According to Baugh and Cable “it was the language of a highly regarded civilization, one from which the Anglo-Saxons wanted to learn.”[2] The reason for that early good reputation was the fact that the Romans were the conquering, not the conquered people of the known civilization.

1. The Continental period

Before the Anglo-Saxons migrated to England, their different tribes inhabited the northern part of the European continent. Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable call this period the ‘Zero Period’[3]. Many southern Germanics settlements were invaded and conquered by the Romans. These contacts normally started to develop into “peaceful co-existence”[4]

It is estimated that by the fourth century the number of Germanics living within the Roman Empire mounts to several million, most numerous along the northern frontier, where the Roman and Germanic territories bordered. Many members of Germanic tribes joined the Roman army. There these soldiers learned Latin military terminology there, as well as everyday objects used in daily life, which the Germanic people did not possess and therefore had no words for. Last, the soldiers came across plants or animals that did not exist in the part of Europe their tribe came from. For these they also used the Latin terms. When the soldiers came home, they brought the new terminology with them and teached them their family and social acquaintances.

After the soldiers, the Roman merchants came and sold goods, which had been unknown to the Anglo-Saxons, so that they did not just buy the goods, but also adopted their names.

Last in this early period Roman settlers joined the Germanic tribes, introducing mainly building terms.

All in all, according to Dieter Kastovsky, about 170 lexical items were introduced by these three groups into the different Germanic dialects during the continental period. About a third of these represented plants or animals, a fifth food, vessels and household items, 12 per cent buildings and other words related to construction, about 9 per cent military and legal institutions, another 9 per cent commercial activities, and a rest of about 3 per cent denote other things.[5]

Baugh and Cable however also name commerce and religion as spheres the Anglo-Saxons have borrowed from in this early period, though they estimate the number of words borrowed in this period much lower, as about 50 words.

Examples for the various spheres the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from are:

Plants: minte (‘mint’) / Latin word: menta[6]

Animals: elpend (‘elephant’) / Latin word: elephant-

Food: win (‘wine’) / Latin word: vinum

Vessels: cupp(e) / Latin word: cuppa

Household items: candel (‘candle’) / Latin word: candela

Building-related words: weall (‘wall’) / Latin word: vallum

Military words: cempa (‘warrior’) / Latin word: campus

Institutions: scol (‘school’) / Latin word: scola

Commerce: mangere (‘merchant’) / Latin word: mango

Religion: munuc (‘monk’) / Latin word: monachus

The most borrowings of this period, as well as of the next one, were borrowed from spoken Latin. Therefore, their source was Vulgar Latin and not the classical, written Latin. Vulgar Latin then gradually began to undergo some sound changes, distinguishing itself from Classical Latin. Kastovsky names these sound differences as a criterion to determine, when a word has been borrowed: those, which had undergone the sound changes, stemmed from a later period as those which had not. As an example, Kastovsky names torr (‘tower’) / Latin word: turris, which had already undergone the following change [u] > [o] and which he therefore dates as being borrowed in the third century A.D.[7]


[1] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable: A history of the English language. London 19944, p. 89.

[2] Baugh and Cable, p. 75.

[3] Baugh, Cable, p. 77.

[4] Dieter Kastovsky: Semantics and vocabulary. In: Richard M. Hogg (Ed.): The Cambridge History of the English Language. Volume I. From the beginnings to 1066, Cambridge 1992, p. 301.

[5] See Kastovsky, p. 301, 302.

[6] Note: All examples provided in this section are taken from Kastovsky.

[7] See Kastovsky, p. 303.


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Title: Latin loanwords in English