Why Are So Many English Words Latin-Based?

Back in the 20th century, the gifted novelist and playwright Dorothy Sayers said the English language owned a “wide, flexible, and double-tongued vocabulary.”

What she meant was English has two tones. For every word rooted in a “barbarian” tongue like Anglo-Saxon, there is a word from the Latin for the same thing. So writers can choose between the Old English “face” or the Latin “visage”; “hear” or “auditory”; “touch” or “sense.” The list goes on.

Latin is often referred to as a Mother Tongue because so many modern languages descend from her. These include French, Romanian, Italian, Spanish, and many others. These are called “Romantic” languages because they descend directly from the “Roman” tongue, Latin.

But English is not a Romantic language. It is a West Germanic language that developed far away from Rome.

And yet, over 60% of English words are Latin-based. These tend to be the longer and fancier words, so the more syllables you add, the higher the percentage. How did this happen? How did English become over-half-Romantic, or as Dorothy put it, “double-tongued”?

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The story begins in the 15th century.

English is a “vulgar” language

In the 15th century, English had produced no great poets, philosophers, or playwrights. The only exception was Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval writer of The Canterbury Tales, and maybe a few other writers.

But they were seen as the exception that proved the rule: English was a lowly, crude, and “barbaric” language with little literary or artistic value. Any great minds or artists to come out of England at this time preferred to write in Latin. They thought English was inadequate for lofty ideas or artistic expression.

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer.

John Wycliffe and Bible Translation

To really understand the outlook, we need to get into a bit of religious history (which doubles as linguistic history). In the 14th century, John Wycliffe, a highly educated Englishman, wanted to translate the Bible into English. He met much resistance from the Church and the government.

A key objection was that English simply wasn’t good enough for sacred Scripture. Back then, everyone believed the Bible was the Word of God. As such, it contained the loftiest and most beautiful truths, so, they thought, it should be translated into a language to match.

But this didn’t just mean ancient languages like Latin. Any language would do, so long as it was eloquent. In fact, there were a few French Bibles circulating in England at the time.

If Wycliffe had wanted to produce a new translation of the Bible in French, it would not have been controversial. But English was seen to be especially “base,” “ugly,” and “vulgar.”

After the Wycliffe controversy, English-speaking people had a renewed sense of the inadequacy of their native tongue. In fact, almost zero original works of theology, science, poetry, or philosophy appeared in English for the next century. So what changed?

The printing press

early 20th century depiction Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press

An early 20th century reconstruction of Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press.

After a dour century when the average lay reader was not likely to find any complex text in the common vernacular, there was a sudden explosion in translation work. This was a response to the invention of the printing press and a spike in the rate of literacy.

But this did not mean the translators suddenly found a fresh appreciation for English. Just the opposite.

For example, in the dedication of his devotional work, Robert Filles apologises for transferring a French text into the “plaine and simple rudeness” of his English tongue.

Similarly, in the dedication of his translation of Thomas More’s Utopia (1551), Ralph Robinson confides he had hesitated to submit it to print because “the barbarous rudeness of my [English] translation” fell far too short of the eloquence of the original Latin.

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English and eloquence

English lacked eloquence. At the time, eloquence meant “a word that fits the meaning.” Just as you would not dress a king in rags, or a peasant in silk robes, so you would not clothe a beautiful text in “rude English garb.” When a beautiful word corresponded so a beautiful meaning, the language was deemed eloquent.

In the 16th century, we find no English writer who claims any literary or eloquent quality for his work. English had a low reputation. And not just by foreigners. Native English speakers viewed their own language with contempt.

Neologising

English lacked eloquence. It was “barren” or “deficient,” which meant the English vocabulary lacked equal analogues to words in Latin, Greek, and other languages. The proposed solution by translators was to borrow, and thereby enrich the English language with foreign words.

Today, we call this neologising: the creation or introduction of new words into a language.

In England, neologising became a regular justification for translation work. At the time, the esteem of a language was the amount of learning it contained, so English speakers increasingly saw their mother tongue as bankrupt. The way to enrich it was by pillaging the literature of other, more eloquent languages.

William Caxton and the “Romanticising” of English

Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster:

William Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster.

Beginning with William Caxton, nearly all foreign texts brought into England were “Englished” with the stated aim of enriching the English language. Caxton selected French and Latin bestsellers, which were then continuously reprinted by his successors, such as de Worde and Pynson.

The purpose for doing so, he stated, was

“to the end that it might be had as well in the realm of England as in other lands.”

Thomas Hoby shares the same idea in his famous translator’s epistle:

“In this pointe (I knowe not by what destinye) Englishemen are muche inferiour to well most all other Nations.”

He goes on to say English-speakers are incompetent when it comes to language, and they resist translation. This is wrong, according to Hoby, for translation does not

“hinder learning, but it furthereth it, yea, it is learning itself.”

In this way, contempt for English spurred translation work.

The result? English literature was flooded with new words borrowed from Latin, French, and Italian. Over time, these were naturalised and became a part of the common vernacular.

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Learning Latin

Today, English is no longer seen as a “vulgar” language. After the labours of 16th-century translators, English became much more respectable in the literary world. Afterwards, great philosophers, poets, and playwrights (the most important being William Shakespeare) emerged who published significant works in English.

These brought it into its own as an eloquent tongue suitable for lofty ideas and great artistic expressions.

It so happens that English’s “adoption” of Latin makes it easier for native English speakers to learn Latin. Thanks to 16th-century translators, the relationship between English and Latin is stark.

Students barely need to guess that pater means “father,” or digitus means “finger,” or persona means “person.” Latin boasts hundreds of English derivatives.

Even though English is not a Romance language, it has been deeply formed by Mother Latin over the centuries. So much so, we could say English is one of her adopted children. Maintaining this relationship could help to enrich and beautify English as it continues to develop. To do this, we must first learn Latin.

Blake Adams is a freelance writer and Latin tutor. His mission is to connect modern readers with the minds of antiquity. He lives in Illinois with his wife, cat, and houseplant