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LINGUISTICS: contributions of Latin and Greek to English

  1. Dec 15, 2011 #1
    From my understanding, the line of descent of the English language looks like this:
    Modern English << Middle English << Old English << Anglo-Saxon << Old Saxon/other Old Germanic languages.

    Also, from my understanding, somewhere between 50-70% of all modern English words have Latin and/or Greek origins or roots, even though neither language is in English's line of descent.

    I understand that Latin and Greek, as well as French, old Celtic, and other languages, have contributed "horizontally", i.e. by co-existence and parallel use, but how could this influence have been so great without being "vertical"?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 15, 2011 #2


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    Cow -[Middle English cou, from Old English c; see gwou- in Indo-European roots.]
    beef -[Middle English, from Old French buef, from Latin bs, bov-; see gwou- in Indo-European roots.]

    Word History: That beef comes from cows is known to most, but the close relationship between the words beef and cow is hardly household knowledge. Cow comes via Middle English from Old English c, which is descended from the Indo-European root *gwou-, also meaning "cow." This root has descendants in most of the branches of the Indo-European language family. Among those descendants is the Latin word bs, "cow," whose stem form, bov-, eventually became the Old French word buef, also meaning "cow." The French nobles who ruled England after the Norman Conquest of course used French words to refer to the meats they were served, so the animal called c by the Anglo-Saxon peasants was called buef by the French nobles when it was brought to them cooked at dinner. Thus arose the distinction between the words for animals and their meat that is also found in the English word-pairs swine/pork, sheep/mutton, and deer/venison. What is interesting about cow/beef is that we are in fact dealing with one and the same word, etymologically speaking.

    In other words, conquest of one society by another will lead to an interchange of words and phrases. Exploration and trade also contibuted to the enrichment of the english language.

    An example not of latin roots
    Ca·nadi·an (k-nd-n) adj. & n.
    Word History: Linguistically, mountains can be made out of molehills, so to speak: words denoting a small thing can, over time, come to denote something much larger. This is the case with Canada, now the name of the second-largest country in the world but having a much humbler origin. Apparently its history starts with the word kanata, which in Huron (an Iroquoian language of eastern Canada) meant "village." Jacques Cartier, the early French explorer, picked up the word and used it to refer to the land around his settlement, now part of Quebec City. By the 18th century it referred to all of New France, which extended from the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes and down into what is now the American Midwest. In 1759, the British conquered New France and used the name Quebec for the colony north of the St. Lawrence River, and Canada for the rest of the territory. Eventually, as the territory increased in size and the present arrangement of the provinces developed, Canada applied to all the land north of the United States and east of Alaska.

    references from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/
  4. Dec 15, 2011 #3


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    I once heard it said that while many languages borrow words from other languages, English chases them down the street and mugs them.
  5. Dec 15, 2011 #4


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    There was a "vertical" influence, in 1066. Overnight, the entire ruling class had Norman French as its first language. Hence the duplicate vocabulary when animals looked after by Anglo Saxon speaking serfs were processed into food eaten by their superiors. The same double vocabulary goes right through the language - for example "better/worse" and "superior/inferior", "come/go" and "arrive/depart", etc, etc.

    There was a second wave of frenchification and italianization in the 1600s, when French/Italian culture was perceived to be "better" than English - though there was a later backlash against this led by people like Samuel Johnson (the dictionary guy) who complained that English was being trashed by bad Latin grammar mixed with bad French vocabulary. (And they were right, in the sense that the early English dictionaries included words like "abequitation" meaning "the act of riding away on horseback" (!!!)

    The "1066 effect" still survives in different speech patterns between the north and south of England. The southern vocabulary is much more "latin-frenchified" than the northern.

    Also, from the fall of the Roman empire up to 1066, Anglo-Saxon, the Celtic languages, and Norse were all in parallel use in different parts of Britain, which most definitely was NOT a "united kingdom" at that time.
  6. Dec 16, 2011 #5
    It's also believed that the Germanic languages and the Romance languages have a common origin in the western branch of Proto Indo-European (PIE), a family of dialects that is thought to have existed in present day European Russia before 2000 BCE. So we have "father" in English, "Vater" in German and "pater" in Latin. There are also similarities between IE languages in Europe and IE languages in Asia (Persian, Urdu, languages descended from Sanskrit). Only a few modern languages in Europe are not IE: Finnish-Estonian, Hungarian, Turkish, Basque and a number of languages spoken in the North Caucasus region.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2011
  7. Dec 16, 2011 #6
    OK, so Latin is in French's "vertical" line of descent, and so that is how it influenced English? If that is true, then Old English had scanty Latin influences, whereas Middle English was very much Latin-influenced. Is that a correct interpretation?

    Yes, but none of these languages has Latin in its "vertical" line of descent, right?
  8. Jan 17, 2012 #7
    I've noticed that a lot of words have their consonants transposed, such asspill and slip within English. So I think that cowis a tranposition of the Latin root vaca (as in "vaccine), when the v was pronounced like a w.
  9. Jan 17, 2012 #8
    I've come up with some unique derivations. DOG means "pointer," related to DIGITUS "finger" and INDICATE. MOON is related to MINUS, because in primitive times it seemed to get smaller and disappear. ONE is related to UNCIA, meaning "fingernail," because primitives counted by touching their chest to mean "one." They indicated more than two by waving their hand to cover numbers they didn't have words for, so MANY is related to MANUS, Latin for "hand."
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