Borrowings from classical languages with special reference to the Age of Renaissance

The Latin language continued to be used in England all through the OE and ME periods in religious rituals, in legal documents, and in texts of a scientific and philosophical character. After the Norman Conquest it was partly replaced by official Anglo-Norman. The main spheres of the Latin language were the Church, the law courts and academic activities.

Latin words were borrowed in all historical periods. In ME they were certainly less numerous than borrowings from French; their proportion was high only in religious texts translated from Latin.

The extraordinary surge of interest in the classics in the age of the Renaissance opened the gates to a new wave of borrowings from Latin and to a lesser extent from Greek (some Greek borrowings were adopted from Latin in a Latinised form, others came directly from Greek). In the 16th and the 17th c. Latin was the main language of philosophy and science, its use in the sphere of religion became more restricted after the Reformation and the publication of the English versions of the Bible.

Many classical borrowings came into Early NE through French due to continuous contacts with France, for the French language had adopted many loan-words from classical languages at the time of the Renaissance. Sometimes the immediate source of the loan-word cannot be determined. Thus the words solid, position, consolation and many others, judging by their form, could be adopted either directly from Latin or from French, having entered the French language some time before; such borrowings are often referred to as Franco-Latin. They should not be confused with loan-words from Old French, which usually go back to Latin roots, for French is one of the descendants of Latin; words borrowed from Old French differ from their Latin prototypes as they have been subjected to many changes in French.

Some loan-words from Old French were reshaped by the erudites of the Age of Renaissance according to their Latin prototypes though their forms were historically correct, since they were adopted from Old French. This Latinisation in the 15th-16th c. produced words like describe in place of Chaucers descrive(n), equal instead of egal, language instead of langage, debt, doubt and adventure instead of the earlier dette, doute, aventure. Some corrections even affected the pronunciation: language, adventure.

Adoption of classical words may have been facilitated by the large number of French loan-words in the English language of the 15th and 16th c. This is how O. Jespersen accounts for extensive borrowing of Latin words:

The great historical event, without which this influence would never have assumed such gigantic dimensions was the revival of learning. Through Italy and France the Renaissance came to be felt in England as early as the 14th c., and since then the invasion of classical terms has never stopped, although the multitude of new words introduced was greater, perhaps, in the 14th, the 16th, the 19th than in the intervening centuries. The same influence is conspicuous in all European languages, but in English it has been stronger than in any other language, French perhaps excepted. This fact cannot, I think, be principally due to any greater zeal for classical learning on the part of the English than of other nations. The reason seems rather to be that the natural power of resistance possessed by a Germanic tongue against these alien intruders had been already broken in the case of the English language by the wholesale importation of French words. They paved the way for the Latin words which resembled them in so many respects, and they had already created in English minds that predilection for foreign words which made them shrink from consciously coining new words out of the native material.[1]

One of the reasons for the influx of Latin words at the Age of Renaissance was that many of the new ideas encountered in classical works were not susceptible to precise translation therefore scholars often preferred to retain the Latin terms.

In considering classical borrowings a distinction must be made between genuine Latin and Greek words, which were used in ancient times with the same meaning, and those which were based on Latin and Greek roots but were made up as new terms in modern times.

Borrowings which were adopted in their original form (and meaning) or with slight adaptation, such as the dropping or change of the ending largely date from the 16th c. They mostly indicate abstract concepts and belong to the vocabulary of educated people or even erudites.

Numerous Latin and Greek words were first used by Thomas More (early 16th c.), who wrote in Latin and in English; among his innovations were anticipate, contradictory, exact, exaggerate, explain, fact, monopoly, necessitate, pretext. Many classical borrowings first appeared in Shakespeares works: accommodation, apostrophe, dislocate, misanthrope, reliance, submerge.

The following list includes loan-words of the 16th and early 17th c. which still circulate today (unless indicated in brackets, the words are of Latin origin): anonymous (Gr), aspiration, census, contempt, criterion (Gr), explicit, genius, gesture, history, index, include, individual, inferior, interrupt, item, major, minor, ostracise (Gr), popular, reject, submit, suppress. As the borrowings extended to other spheres of usage they could lose their learned character, e.g. add, animal, correct, discuss, obstinate, necessary, picture, quiet, student, suggest.

Some borrowings have a more specialized meaning and belong to scientific terminology (for the most part, they go back to Greek prototypes and may have been taken either from Greek or from Latin and French in a Latinised form), e.g. acid, analysis, antenna, apparatus, appendix, atom, axis, complex, curriculum, diagnosis, energy, formula, fungus, inertia, maximum, minimum, nucleus, radius, species, terminus, ultimatum. A distinct semantic group of Greek loan-words pertains to theatre, literature and rhetoric: anapest, comedy, climax, critic, dialogue, drama, elegy, epilogue, episode, metaphore, prologue, rhythm, scene, theatre. Like all borrowings, classical loan-words could undergo a shift of meaning upon entering the English language or some time later. Thus the original meaning of L musculus (NE muscle) was little mouse, cosmetic came fromGreek kosmos universe, order (hence adornment), and was also adopted in the original meaning (NE cosmos); atom meant something indivisible and changed its meaning due to the new discoveries in physics; climax meant a ladder in Greek.

In addition to true borrowings, classical languages have provided a supply of roots in the creation of new words. Words like protestant, inertia, are based on classical roots but were created in modern times. Thomas Elyot (16th c.) introduced the Greek word democracy, first used the word education in the modern sense, and created the word encyclopaedia from Greek component parts.

Nowadays words of this type form the basis of international terminology, which is the chief element that modern languages hold in common.

One of the effects of the classical borrowings on the English language was a further increase in the number of synonyms. Replacement of native words by classical loan-words is of rare occurrence; a normal result of the adoption of Latin words (in case they were not innovations proper) was an addition of another synonym to the existing set. The following examples illustrate three sources of synonyms (or near-synonyms) and their semantic and stylistic differences:

Native English French Latin

break sever separate

reckon count compute

size caliber magnitude

kingly royal regal

It is evident that Latin and French words are more bookish than native. Latin words are sometimes more elevated than French ones.

Some French and Latin loan-words in the English vocabulary go back to one and the same Latin root, i.e. they are etymological doublets. They differ in sound, form and meaning, as the borrowings from Old French have undergone many changes in the history of the French language since the days of the Latin parent-language and in the history of English after their adoption. The borrowings coming directly from Latin have suffered relatively few changes. In the list above, the pairs sever separate and royal regal are etymological doublets. Other examples are: sure secure (from Old French seure and Latin securum); defeat defect (from O Fr defait and L defectum); pursue prosecute (from O Fr persuir and L prosecutum); vowel vocal (from O Fr vouel and L vocalem).

Early NE borrowings from classical languages have been assimilated by the language: they do not contain any foreign, un-English, sounds and receive primary and secondary stresses like other English words; the grammatical forms of borrowed words are usually built in accordance with the regular rules of English grammar, except for some recent borrowings which have preserved their forms: datum data, antenna antennae, etc. And nevertheless they are easier to identify than the earlier layers of borrowings because they were borrowed a relatively short time ago and have been subjected to very few changes.

In order to identify Latin loan-words of the Early NE period we should note some endings and suffixes which occur in Latin borrowings but are not used for word creation in English. Some verbs were derived from Latin Past Participle of verbs belonging to different conjugations: verbs in ate go back to the 1st Latin conjugation with the Participle in atum, e.g. dominate, locate, separate; verbs in ute come from Past Participle in utum, e.g. execute, prosecute, verbs in ct- from past Participle in ctum, e.g. correct, inspect. Verbs derived from Latin infinitives have miscellaneous endings, which cannot serve as reliable criteria for identification, e.g. admit, compel, induce.

Most informative are the elements ent, -ant in adjectives. They come from respective suffixes of Present Participle, e.g. apparent, evident, important, reluctant. The same suffixes may occur in nouns: incident, accident.

Some of the Greek loan-words retain peculiarities of spelling which can facilitate identification: ph for [f], ps for [s], ch for [k], e.g. photography, psychology, scheme, archaic.

Stylistically the bulk of classical borrowings belong to the bookish varieties of the language, to scientific prose and to special terminology.



1. The English vocabulary in ME and NE was enriched primarily at the expense of borrowings from other languages: Scandinavian, French and classical languages.

2. Though the influence of other languages on English vocabulary in the 12th 15th c. was quite substantial, the basic word-stock comprised native words of common Germanic origin.

[1] Jespersen O. Growth and structure of the English language. Oxford, 1927. P.105-106.


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