Visualizing the Impact of Latin on English

Philip Durkin, author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English, wrote an article for Slate a few years ago which is a wonderful resource for understanding the influence of Latin and other languages on English. The article is well-written, but the interactive element at the top is the true prize.

In an earlier post, the opinion of controversial figure Minister Louis Farrakhan concerning the high value of learning Latin was referenced. Durkin certainly seems to concur about the impact of Latin, noting:

The elephant in the room, however, is how Latin and French dominate the picture in just about every period. Even the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from Latin (e.g. forkstreetwine), and ever since the Norman Conquest English has been borrowing hugely from French and Latin—quite often taking the same word partly from each of these languages, especially in the medieval period. Words like governmentpayscience, or war (from French), or actiongeneralperson, and use (French and/or Latin) have become an indispensable part of English. Even among the 1000 most frequently used words in modern English, not far short of 50 percent have come into the language from French or Latin.

It should perhaps go without saying that the vast majority of French is from Latin, and thus French influence on English is in most cases also Latin influence.

Via Wikipedia

The elephant in the room for educational communities is perhaps more so that since 1950, Latin has remained the most influential language in terms of new usages or words. Much of this should be credited to the increasing role of science in our daily lives, but other areas help Latin maintain its relevance. Though “technology” is from Ancient Greek, “computer,” “inter-,” “processor,” “indices,” “code,” “abstraction,” etc. are from Latin. In modern cultural studies, terms such as “cisgender,” “transgender,” “heteronormative,” “intersectional,” “genderfluid,” and “retrogressive” wonderfully employ Latin and Ancient Greek roots to express complex topics.

The language of American civics is replete with meaningful Latin roots. The Latin participle praesidens, praesidentis meant “sitting before, commanding.” The verb congredior, congredi, congressus sum meant to “to meet, to engage, to fight.” The  noun iudex, iudicis meant “judge,” and when one pleads nolo contendere in a judicial setting, this literally means “I do not wish to pursue” or “I do not wish to dispute.” One may hope for the survival and propagation of the recent word “nolunteer,” which is intentionally or unintentionally punning on the difference between Latin nolo (“I do not want”) and volo (“I want”). 

Few words in English are purely phonetic coinages with arbitrary meanings (yet those are often the most fun words). Perhaps this is why academics continue to look at how Classically-infused instruction can be integrated with or be presented alongside English instruction to help students succeed in a world where dead languages are still shaping the global community.

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