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Early Latin loans


Later loans
Lexical gaps

Some loans from Latin were present in the Germanic dialects which were brought to England in the first place. These probably entered Germanic because of contact and trade with the Romans on the continent. In England some loans may be due to exchange with the descendants of the original Romans who remained in the country after the departure of the Roman legions in about 440 AD. The next group of Latin loans is directly connected with the Christianisation of England which began from the south at the end of the 6th century (there was already a presence in Scotland and the north of England due to Christianisation from Ireland).

Latin OldEng ModEng German
planta plante plant Pflanze
menta minte mint Minze
vinum win wine Wein
coquina cycene kitchen Küche
caseus cese cheese Käse
moneta mynet mint Münze
discus disc dish Tisch
caupo ceap(mann) cheap, chapman Kauf(mann)
(via)strata stræt street Straße
milia(passum) mil mile Meile
tegula tigel tile Ziegel
monasterium mynster minster Münster
molina mill mill Mühle
pondo pund pound Pfund
uncia inc inch Unze
angelos angel angel Engel
diabolos deovol devil Teufel

It is possible to establish a relative chronology for Latin loans on the basis of word forms. For instance the word for wine in English is obviously an old loan from Latin (older than the ecclesiastical loans) as it goes back to trade with the Romans and is found in German in the same form as well (originally /wi:n/).

Later the word changes its vowel to /ai/ (due to later internal changes in both German and English). Now the Latin of this early period had a sound /w/ which was written v, i.e. the word for ‘wine’ was winum. This sound shifted in later Latin from an approximant to a fricative and was then pronounced as [v]. After this stage the word for the bush on which the wine grape was grown was borrowed into English, this time as vine with an initial /v-/. Hence the contrast in present-day English between wine ‘Wein’ and vine ‘Weinstock’ with /w-/ versus /v-/.

Later Latin loans


Loans from Latin continue to appear continuously throughout the history of English. In the early modern period (16th and 17th centuries) there is a particularly strong influence due to the development of technical vocabulary and the desire to enrich English to make it an equal of the classical languages Latin and Greek. This should be seen in connection with general cultural developments of the time. In the early modern period one has on the one hand a renewed interest in Classical culture, deriving from the new perspective on pre-Christian culture developed in the Renaissance, and on the other one has the necessity to devise terms for the many inventions and developments of science. This created an atmosphere in which scholars concerned themselves intensively with Latin and Greek and considered how English might be enriched by borrowing words from the classical languages. We might find this attitude strange today but at that time the older languages were regarded as more perfect, probably because they were seen as the carriers of the founding culture of later Europe. In the course of the 16th century many discussions were carried on in public in which scholars either approved of the policy of direct borrowing from Latin or Greek for the purpose of enriching English or they did not. The latter group felt that English provides the means itself for the creation of any terms which might be needed in the language. These disagreements among scholars are generally known as the Inkhorn Controversy because it was something which concerned writers and scholars more than the general populace.

To the modern reader this controversy appears to be a case of extreme prescriptivism where some authors attempted to apply notions of undue conservativism to their contemporary language by insisting that Latin and Greek were superior to English and that one should borrow wholesale from these languages. However there is one respect in which the classical borrowings did indeed fulfill a genuine need in English.

Lexical gaps


Because of its lexical structure English had at the time many instances of nouns without corresponding adjectives. These are so-called lexical gaps. Furthermore because English formed (and still forms) semantic compounds by joining an adjective to a noun there was a real need for adjectives. Note that German forms semantic compounds by formal compounds in which two nouns are joined together (see translation below).

  noun adjective
before sea Ø
after sea marine (< Latin mare)
example marine life  

Now in some instances the corresponding adjective was present in the language but had a non-neutral connotation (in the examples below the word watery means ‘containing too much fluid’ and horsy means ‘in gait like a horse’); another instance would be dermatologist (not skin doctor, and most certainly not skinny doctor) for Hautarzt.

noun water horse war
adjectives (Germanic) watery horsy Ø
adjectives (Latinate) aquatic equestrian martial

The above cases fill lexical gaps. But during the early modern period many loans were made which were not strictly demanded by the language but which nonetheless have remained. There is a general observation that if two words originally have the same meaning then they survive in a language only if they are later differentiated, semantically or stylistically. This is what has happened with those loans which were not strictly speaking necessary in a functional sense but which have stayed in English all the same (many have disappeared since). Below there is a selection of such words. The contrast which has arisen is usually that between a native word and a classical loan (generally from Latin).

father fatherly paternal  
man manly virile masculine
woman womanly female feminine

In many instances the loans from classical languages are the only forms available in English. Some random examples of this are hippopotamus, paralysis, nausea, cemetry. Many of these, because they are opaque, have been reduced by abbreviation, e.g. pram from perambulator; polio from poliomyelitis.