Chapter 2: The Latin Noun (Declensions 1 & 2)

§16. The Legacy of Latin: I. Old English

Although this course is in no sense a history of the English language, you should have some idea about the various historical circumstances that brought English into contact with Latin. Depending upon the chronological period when a Latin word came into English, it may be totally transformed in appearance, or, conversely, retain almost its exact original spelling. In some periods, Latin words were likely to have passed through another language before entering English; at other times, they tended to come directly from Latin to English. A knowledge of the historical context can provide insight into otherwise puzzling features of morphological change, enabling us to appreciate why Latin words assume such a diversity of forms in the English language. In three installments, therefore—here, and in parallel sections of Chapters 3 and 4—you will be given a broad summary of the interrelationship of Latin and English. The story is quite varied and fascinating: it involves military conquest; trade and commercial intercourse; invasions and other population movements; missionary activity; and a powerful cultural and intellectual influence that continues to this day.

You will have no trouble finding any number of books on the history of English, if you wish to pursue this subject in greater depth. One interesting and reliable study is C.M. Millward’s, A Biography of the English Language (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1989).

In the first of these three sections, let us consider the impact of Latin on English in the era prior to the Norman Conquest of AD 1066.

Although the portion of the British Isles now called England had been conquered by the ancient Romans and made part of their empire, that conquest assumes very little importance in our present study. This is not because Rome’s contact with Britain had been casual or superficial: after the Emperor Claudius decided in AD 43 to subjugate this island that had been first raided in 55 BC by his great-grandfather, Julius Caesar, the province of Britain was firmly established within the system of imperial government. It remained that way for some three and a half centuries, until the problems of a disintegrating empire forced the Romans to withdraw in AD 410. The archaeological heritage of the Roman occupation is most impressive, from the great baths and villas of southern England to Hadrian’s Wall in the north. The linguistic legacy, however, is very meagre: it consists mainly of the word mile, derived from Latin mille (“a thousand”[1]), and a number of English place names that are derived from Latin castra (“army camp”)—Chester, Manchester, Doncaster, Lancaster, and the like. One reason is that the native population of Roman Britain appears not to have been as thoroughly assimilated as their counterparts in Roman Gaul or Spain. Also, we must remember that the Britons of this period were tribal Celts, a people later overwhelmed by successive waves of Germanic invaders. At the time of the Roman occupation, the language that we call “English” had not yet come into being.

Soon after the Romans withdrew, Britain was subjected to a series of invasions by Germanic tribes living along the north German coast, from Frisia in the Netherlands to Denmark. Mainly Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, these invaders brought with them closely related low German dialects that merged into the language popularly known as “Anglo-Saxon,” which scholars prefer to call OLD ENGLISH. (England is “the land of the Angles.”) The earliest of the Anglo-Saxon invasions is traditionally dated to AD 449.

Having come from a region that was close to the Roman imperial frontier, these Germanic peoples had already been in contact with speakers of Latin, through trade and commerce, and they brought with them a number of Latin loan-words that filled gaps in their native vocabulary. These are among the oldest Latin words in English, having likely been part of Anglo-Saxon speech as early as the 5th or 6th centuries AD. Because the first English manuscript written in the Roman alphabet dates only from c.737 AD, it is impossible to document these early words, let alone date them precisely. Probably they were carried to Britain by Anglo-Saxon tribes from the mainland, but they may have entered Old English at a somewhat later date.

Here is a selection, presented in their Modern English form:

 street  [via] strata
 “layered” or “paved” [road]
 wall  vallum  “rampart,” “wall”
 wine  vinum  “wine”
 cook  coquus  “cook”
 kitchen  coquina  “kitchen”
 chalk  calx  “limestone”
 cheese  caseus  “cheese”
 pitch  pix  “pitch”
 post  postis  “pillar,” “post’
 pound  [libra] pondo
 [pound] “by weight”
 mint  moneta  “coined money,” “mint”
 inch  uncia  “twelfth part,” “inch”

The above words all relate, in one way or another, to everyday secular life. However, there is another, rather different group of Latin derivatives that found its way into Old English at a somewhat later time; these are words that have to do with Christianity and aspects of Christian worship. In all likelihood, this terminology was adopted in Britain, during the seventh and eighth centuries, after the arrival of the first Christian missionaries around AD 600.[2] There is a considerable number of these words, many of which go back through Latin to a source in Greek—for Greek was the language in which early Christianity had spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The following is a sample only:

pope  papa  papas (“father”)
bishop  episcopus  episkopos (“overseer”)
hymn  hymnus  hymnos (“hymn”)
school  schola  scholē (“leisure”)
monk  monachus  monachos (“monk”)
minster  monasterium  monastērion
nun  nonna  (Latin: “child’s nurse,” “nun”)
creed  credo  (Latin: “I believe”)

By the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066, there may have been as many as 300 Latin derivatives in Old English. By later standards, this was still a very low number.


  1. The Roman mile comprised a thousand double paces of an army on the march; this worked out to 1,618 English yards, a little less than the later English mile of 1,760 yards. Even the word mile is not a certain legacy of the Roman conquest; many scholars think it entered Old English as a Germanic loan-word.
  2. The missionary St. Augustine arrived at Canterbury in AD 597, bringing also the Roman alphabet. Before the end of the seventh century, England could be described as a Christian country.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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