The Latin and Greek influence on English language

A significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romanic and Latinate sources. The influence of Latin in English is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots. The influence of classical Greek on English, on the other hand, has been largely indirect, through LATIN and FRENCH, and largely lexical and conceptual, with some orthographic and other effects.

This Latin influence on English language was heralded by England’s contact with the Latin civilization. In the old English we find much of the Latin words associated with agriculture and war. Words like camp (battle), segn (banner), pil (pointed stick), mil (mile) etc. are early borrowings. Besides, words associated with trade, especially wine trade, enter into the domain. We find words like win (wine), must (new vine), flase (bottle), eced (vinegar) etc. In the domestic field we have cycene (kitchen), cuppe (cup), or disc (disk).

With the Christianization of Britain in 597 A.D begins another phase of Latin borrowing - both learned and popular - to define the new conceptions, new religion, new ideas, and new faith. We have had ‘Church’, ‘bishop’, ‘alms’, ‘alter’, ‘angel’, ‘anthem’, ‘canon’, ‘hymn’, ‘pope’, ‘psalm’, relic etc. during this period. In domestic life we find Latin ‘silk’, ‘radish’, ‘pine’, ‘plant’, ‘school’, ‘master’. The Latin gradually reaches the literary, medical, botanical and intellectual fields. We have ‘history’,‘cancer’, ‘paralyses’, ‘ceader’, ‘tiger’, “camel’.

Together with French, there is a revival of Latin influence after the Norman Conquest, in the formative period of Middle English. The translation of the Vulgate Bible gives the English people words like ‘generation’, ‘persecution’, and ‘transmigration’. The other borrowed words during this time include words from law, medicine, allegory, theology, science, literature etc such as ‘conspiracy’, ‘custody’, ‘frustrate’, ‘genius’, ‘infinite’, ‘intellect’, ‘limbo’, ‘pulpit’, ‘secular’, ‘scripture’, ‘testify’ and many more. Besides vocabulary, Latin popularized prefixes (dis- , re- , sub- , pre-…) and suffixes (-able, -ible, -ent, -al…). Another hallmark in this period is the existence of the three level synonyms: ‘rise-mount-ascent’, ‘ask-question-interrogate’ English word being the most popular, the French word the most literary and the Latin one, the most learned. 

In the Renaissance the Latin words flood into English texts in overwhelming proportion. Besides new additions, native words and French words are remodeled into closer resemblance with their Latin origins. The old English ‘descrive’, gets the new form ‘describe’, by Latin influence. Yet there are the great mass of borrowing in the early modern English comes directly from Latin. Numerous examples can be cited: ‘affidavit’, ‘agenda’, ‘alibi’, ‘animal’, ‘bonus’, deficit ‘exit’, ‘extra’, ‘fact’. ‘Maximum’, ‘memorandum’, omnibus, ‘propaganda’, ‘veto’ etc.

Greek word-forming patterns, words, and word elements were adopted and adapted into Latin and passed through Latin into English and many European and other languages, being used in the main for scholarly and technical purposes. The flow into English was at first limited and largely religious, such as Old English cirice and its descendant church. The significant influx was in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as with catalogue, rhetorical, stratagem, psalmodize, analytical.

Words that starts with 'ph-' are usually of Greek origin, for example: philosophy, physical, photo, phrase, philanthropy. Many English words are formed of parts of words (morphemes) that originate from the Greek language, including phobia (fear of), micro (small), demos (people) etc.

Greek mythology has been very influential in Western culture, particularly its art and literature. Unsurprisingly, some common expressions in English derive from these ancient myths and beliefs. To have an 'Achilles heel' means to have a weakness or vulnerable point, the 'Midas touch' - describes a near-magical ability to succeed at anything one. An idiom which has its roots in Greek antiquity is ‘crocodile tears’. Such examples of the influence of Greek art and culture abound in English language.

In the present-day scenario of the technical and scientific English, Latin shares with Greek the honour of being the source of rich host of new coinages. Words like ‘coaxial’, ‘fission’, ‘interstellar’, ‘neutron’, ‘mutant’, ‘penicillin’, ‘radium’, ‘spectrum’, ‘sulfa’ etc have become an integral part of the English technical vocabulary. Hybrid forms i.e. partly Latin and partly Greek, such as ‘egomaniac’, ‘speleologist’, ‘terramycin’ etc. have also entered the English lexicon in a major way.

Latin and Greek loan words add enormous addition to the English vocabulary. It fills up the gaps in the native stock of words. The Latin epithets and synonyms give masculinity in English. The Latin and Greek dignify and intellectualize the English.

Last modified: Friday, 30 March 2018, 1:11 AM