An English History and Its Development, Introduction, Part 1

(the importance of Latin and Greek in the development of English as revealed in the history of English)

How Extensive is the Use of Latin and Greek in English Vocabulary?

For hundreds of years after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin and Greek were used throughout Europe as the languages of education and knowledge.

European scholars wrote their works in them and educated men corresponded mostly in Latin, with some Greek, with other educated men of their own or different nationalities.

As late as the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, Francis Bacon wrote his scientific works in Latin. This despite the fact that he was one of the most accurate and precise writers of English the English race has ever produced.

In fact, the writing of works in Latin and Greek in order to secure an international audience continued up into the eighteenth century.

The perspective that Latin and Greek were the languages of the educated accounts for the fact that practically any term we use connected with knowledge or any of the arts, or with religion, science, or education, is of Latin and Greek origin.

Even Anglo-Saxon words were influenced by Latin

The terse simple words in English, referring to the "home", the "family", or the "farm" are mostly from the Anglo-Saxon, but even here there is an important Latin influence.

We must remember that the Romans were in Britain for nearly 400 years and left a strong influence on the local speech, so that the Anglo-Saxons, when they arrived, also picked up and incorporated a great many Latin words into their own language.

An everyday Anglo-Saxon-sounding word; such as, plum comes from the Anglo-Saxon pluma; but pluma is merely an Anglo-Saxon mispronunciation of the Latin pruna (plum) from Greek, prounon, a later form of proumnon; which, by the way, comes to us also, through the French, in the form prune.

Again, take the familiar word bishop which is derived from the Anglo-Saxon biscop; but biscop in its turn is only an amputated form of the Latin episcopus (overseer, superintendent), and when we want to form an adjective from bishop we have to go straight to Latin for episcopal; which comes from the Greek word episcopos (watcher, overseer) from the Greek elements, epi-, "over" and -scope, "watcher, examiner". Many other examples of this kind may be cited ad infinitum.

The history of English was Strongly influenced by French

Not only did Latin come into English directly and through the medium of Anglo-Saxon, but it also came in a copious stream through French.

When William the Conqueror defeated the English at Senlac, in 1066, and established a Norman aristocracy in England; French became the language of the court and of the landed proprietors and of the upper classes in general, and French was itself a language of almost pure Latin origin.

Above all, it must not be forgotten that Latin was the language of churchmen and of the services of the Church from the ninth century to the sixteenth century.

As a result of this continued influence of Latin (as well as Greek elements) from so many directions, English vocabulary is simply saturated with both of these classical sources.

The Importance of Latin and Greek etymologies in English words

Classical Greek has contributed significantly to the richness of English vocabulary

For speakers of English, Greek has been traditionally perceived as remote, esoteric, and yet worth a great deal of respect.

Greek word-forming patterns, words, and word elements were adopted and adapted into Latin over 1,500 years, and passed through Latin into 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. The significant influx was in the late Middle ages and the renaissance.

The spelling of Greek words in English was shaped by the orthographics of Latin and French: Greek kaligraphia bacame Latin calligraphia, French calligraphie, and English calligraphy.

Occasionally, a more Greek look survives; as with, kaleidoscope, not calidoscope, and kinetic, not cinetic.

English is much richer as a result of Classical Greek contributions

The word-creating capacity of Greek, while prodigious, is not unique; nor has it usually had a direct channel into the Western European languages; as a result, even the most rigorous scientific terminologies are hybrid.

One example includes the names of the geological eras, created in English as an ad-hoc system unlikely to have been a classical Greek scholar's choice.

The Greeks were the first Europeans to use an alphabet, to theorize about language, and to frame language categories.

Most of the literary genres of the western world were invented or formalized by the Greeks and many of the names they used have passed with only minor adaptation to many successor languages.

Key literary words in English that are of Greek origin include: anachronism, anthology, archetype, biography, catharsis, comedy, criticism, elegy, epic, euphemism, hubris, irony, lyric, metaphor, mythology, poetics, rhetoric, sarcasm, symbolism, and tragedy.

As a result of the continued influence of Greek elements from so many directions, the English language is simply saturated with this classical source.

It is fair to say that without some knowledge of the Latin and Greek elements in English, users of English can not be certain of the accuracy of their spellings or of the correctness of many of the simple and more complex words used in English which are the results of Latin and Greek sources.

Proceed to Introduction, Part 2 for more information.

References: sources of information.

INDEX or Table of Contents, English and its historical development.