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Latin Words and Expressions in English

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Why Learn About Latin Words and Expressions in English?:

Some excellent reasons you might want to know more about Latin words and expressions in English are:
  • You're studying for a vocabulary/admissions test.
  • You're a non-native English speaker puzzled by the vocabulary.
  • You're developing a character for a novel.
  • You need a new word for a specific technical purpose.
  • You are a stickler for language purity and don't want to create a hybrid word inadvertently. [See this "polyamory" t-shirt for more information.]
You might also want to learn more about Latin words in English because you've heard that English is based on Latin. It's not.

The Latin Connection With English:

It's confusing to hear that English doesn't come from Latin because there are so many Latin words and expressions in English, but vocabulary is not enough to make one language the daughter language of another. Romance languages, including French, Italian, and Spanish, come from Latin, an important sub-branch of the Italic branch of the Indo-European tree. The Romance languages are sometimes called daughter languages of Latin. English is a Germanic language, not a Romance or Italic language. The Germanic languages are on a different branch from the Italic.

Just because our English language doesn't come from Latin doesn't mean all our words have a Germanic origin. Clearly, some words and expressions are Latin, like ad hoc. Others, e.g., habitat, circulate so freely that we're not aware they're Latin. Some came into English when Francophone Normans invaded Britain in 1066. Others, borrowed from Latin, have been modified.

Latin Words in English:

There are many Latin words in English. Some are more obvious than others because they are italicized. Others are used with nothing to set them apart as imported from Latin. You may not even be aware they're Latin, like "veto" or "etc."

Latin Words Incorporated in English Words:

In addition to what we call borrowing (although there is no plan to return the borrowed words), Latin is used to form English words. Often English words contain a Latin word as a prefix. These Latin words are most often Latin prepositions. Many Latin words come into English with the preposition already attached to the verb. Sometimes the ending is changed to suit the needs of English; for instance, the verb may be converted to a noun.

Latin Sayings in English:

Some of these sayings are familiar in translation; others in their original Latin (or Greek). Most of them are profound and worth remembering (in either the classical or modern language).

More - Words and Ideas:

Words and Ideas, edited by William J. Dominik, contains word-building techniques for those who want to learn how to combine bits of Latin or Greek to form proper words in English or for those interested in the meaning of those word components.

Latin Grammar in English:

Since English doesn't come from Latin it follows that the internal structure or grammar of English is different from Latin. But English grammar as it is taught in classes on grammar is based on Latin grammar. As a result, some official rules make limited or no sense. One that is familiar, in its violation, from the Star Trek series, is the rule against a split infinitive. The Star Trek sentence contains the split infinitive "to boldly go." Such a construction simply can't happen in Latin, but is obviously easy to do in English, and it works. See William Harris on how we wound up with the Latin grammar albatross.
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