How did Latin influence Old English?

Latin is one of the languages that has most influenced English since its birth as a language. In this essay we are going to approach the Latin influence in vocabulary along the periods of the English language to see if, without the Latin influence it would be as rich as it is now with it and if the language would be impoverished or not.

In its beginnings, Old English did not have the large number of words borrowed from Latin and French that now form part of English vocabulary. Old English was a very flexible language capable of using old words and giving them new uses.

Latin has been the second great influence on English. It was the language of an educated and sophisticated civilization from which the Saxon peoples wanted to learn. The contact between these people was at first commercial and military but then it also became religious and intellectual. Before going to England the Germans had already had contact with the Romans and of course, from this contact they acquired some Latin words. When Christian was introduced in England, the people living there adopted many Latin elements.

English borrowings from Latin came in three waves that extended the resourced of their vocabulary.
“A connection between Latin and English is indicated by such correspondences as pater with English father, or frāter with brother, although the difference in the initial consonants tends somewhat to obscure the relationship” (Baugh, Cable 1993:18)

Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable, in their book ‘A history of the English language' divide the Latin influences in the vocabulary in three stages: The continental borrowing, the Latin through Celtic transmission and the Latin influence of the second period and the norman conquest.

We are going to see three occasions in which borrowings from Latin occurred ¿¿¿before the end of the old English period??:

During the continental borrowing, the words were introduced because of the contact the German tribes had had with the Romans on the continent. Some of the words introduced were already present in the early Germanic dialects because of the trading contact. The Germans coming back from the empire brought with them words apart from goods. The words they adopted indicated new conceptions related with things they did not know or for which they did not have terms. The germans in the empire dedicated themselves to agriculture and war, as some words like camp (battle), segn (banner), weall (wall), pytt(pit), strœt (road, street), mīl (mile) and miltestre (courtesan) show. Owing to the commercial relationship most words are related to trade. One of the things they traded was wine and we can observe words like wīn (wine), eced (vinegar). They also traded domestic and household articles plus clothing as in cytel (kettle L.Catillus). In the art of buildings and construction there were words like copor (copper), pic (pitch) or tigele (tile). The words the Germans borrowed reflected the kind of relationships they had.
In the Celtic transmission, which had a poor influence on old English made the Latin influence be limited too during the roman occupation. The extent to which the country had been Romanised and the use of latin by the population were not influential. Some terms could be found in placenames but a direct contact between latin and old English was not possible during this period because the Latin words came thought the transmission of the celts and their interaction with old English was weak. Words like ceaster ( L. castra. Camp) which today forms English place names as Manchester or Doncaster or words like port (harbour, gate, town) from Latin portus and porta; munt (mountain) from latin montem were introduced. The influence of the language in the first period was the slightest of all.

The Latin influence of the second period and the greatest of all was the Christianizing of Britain that started in 597. From this moment until the end of the old engliush period around 500 years later words made their way into English thanks in most cases to monasteries. It is needless to say that most of the terms introduced had to do with the new religion. Some words like church or bishop already belonged to the language because they had been introduced before but the vast majority of terms having to do with churches and their services were introduced in this period. Some examples are abbot, deacon, disciple, angel, althar, anthem, pal, pope, psalm. But the church did not only influence religiously speaking. Some terms related to the domestic life of people, clothes, food, trees, plants, education, miscellaneous things or literature were introduced. Words like cap or silk, lentil or caul (cabbage), pine or lily, the word plant itself, school, master, grammatic(al), meter, notary, anchor, sponge or elephant or calend or talent. There was a great influence in the early years of Christianity in England. As the Latin influence always came and went hand in hand with the church new words when with the Benedictine reform. The imports were different now and they expressed scientific and learned ideas. But some words were still related to religious matters antichrist, apostle or demon.

The words that predominated in this period were the literary and learned ones. Some examples are accent, history, paper, title. Plant names like coriander, cucumber, ginger. Trees like cypress or laurel, some terms related to medical matters like cancer, paralysis and some others related to animals like scorpion, tiger. Despite the introduction of all these words English did not always adopt them to express a new concept. An old word was generally applied to a new object or thing with a small adaptation in order to convey new meanings. The Anglo-Saxons, for example, did not borrow the words for which they already had a meaning.

According to Baugh, as a result of the Christianizing of Britain some 450 Latin words appear in English writings before the close of the English period (Baugh and 1993:86) In spite of this, some words did not make their way into general use until later, when they were reintroduced but others were fully accepted and incorporated into the language.

Before the Norman Conquest Latin was the language used by the church and the one of scholarship, international communication and administration but then, after the conquest, it was replaced by French.


A History of the English Language. Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.