Chapter 4: Simple Latin Adjectives

§31. The Legacy of Latin: III. Modern English

Just as Middle English greatly surpassed Old English in its adoption of words with Latin origins, so has Modern English far exceeded Middle English in this regard. When one considers the time frame, that is not surprising, since the term MODERN ENGLISH is applied to the entire period from 1450 or 1500 to the present day. This era is sometimes subdivided into “Early Modern English,” from 1500 to 1800, and “Present-Day English,” the language of the l9th and 20th centuries. The period as a whole is an era when English has become stabilized as a language that would be mutually intelligible to speakers—or at least to readers—from any time within those five hundred years.

If Middle English was heralded by the Norman invasion of AD 1066, the advent of Modern English was signalled by two not unrelated events, the invention of the printing press (by Johannes Gutenberg, a Mainz goldsmith, in 1450)[1] and the great intellectual and cultural movement known as the Renaissance. Arising in Italy in the 15th century and sweeping into northern Europe with full force in the 16th, this new way of looking at the world sparked a passionate reawakening of interest in the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. The movement was largely caused, of course, by the rediscovery of classical authors and the so-called “Revival of Learning”—a label that is perhaps a little unfair to the excellent Latin scholars of the late Middle Ages, who were the forerunners of the Renaissance. Great works of literature that had previously been accessible only to a learned few were now being keenly studied by a growing circle of literate readers, were being widely disseminated by the new technology of the printed word, and were being translated into English from the original Greek and Latin. The Protestant Reformation caused an upheaval in Christian worship and secular education, with consequences that had a profound effect on the language. During the reign of Elizabeth I, England enjoyed a period unprecedented in its intellectual energy and creativity. William Shakespeare and his fellow poets of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were riding a high crest of linguistic experiment and innovation.

As we observed in Chapter 3 (§23), there had been a certain amount of direct borrowing from Latin during the Middle English period. After 1500, however, the trickle of Latin words became a flood. Poets and scholars vied with each other in coining new English vocabulary that was inspired by their knowledge of the classics—Greek, as well as Latin, though the knowledge of Greek was still rather limited. Some of the results were solid and useful words that have survived to the present day; others were fantastic and preposterous inventions that deserved the early death that was their fate. Students of Elizabethan literature will be aware of the controversy that raged during the 16th century on the propriety of these bizarre and outlandish coinages (“inkhorn terms,” as they were scornfully known). Because scholars and poets on the continent were equally bold and inventive, it was not uncommon for an English writer to borrow a Latin or Greek adaptation that had recently become current in French or Italian usage. If you have access to a dictionary that gives the date of a word’s first attested use in English—for example, the current edition of Webster’s New Collegiate or any of the larger Oxford dictionaries—notice how many Latin derivatives can be dated to the period between 1560 and 1620. That is roughly Shakespeare’s lifetime, but Shakespeare was merely the most conspicuous representative of a widespread general trend.

The extraordinary number of Latin DOUBLETS in modern English can be explained by this activity during the high Renaissance. Though English already had words like chamber and choir, derived through French from Latin camera and chorus, the well-educated writers of the l6th and l7th centuries would go back to the original tongues to adopt forms like camera and chorus as new English words. More often than not, the new word became a naturalized adaptation, rather than an exact adoption: the Latin adjective fragilis, for example, was Anglicized as fragile, now coexisting with its earlier doublet frail. Whenever you are confronted with such a pair of English doublets, it is usually safe to assume that the form that looks less like the Latin original is the older English word, since it probably evolved through French in the Middle English period. The more Latinate form is almost certain to be the learned creation of some Modern English borrower.

In the next few chapters, we will be studying patterns of resemblance between relatively complex Latin words and their corresponding English derivatives. For the most part, our English examples will be drawn from these more learned adaptations of the Modern English period—vocabulary that is unmistakably Latin, once you have had some experience with Latin. There are thousands of words like this in our language, and they continue to be coined at an astonishing rate. The flood of classical neologisms subsided a little in the l7th and 18th centuries, but it began to swell again in the l9th century, as Latin and Greek both began to be exploited for scientific and technical terminology.

Because the English language is so thoroughly stocked with borrowed Latin roots and affixes, speakers of English are now able to invent new combinations of Latin word elements without actually knowing any Latin. Occasionally, a new coinage may cause the scholar some distress, if it violates the standard rules of Latin word formation. A harmless example is the word societal, which will still make a pedantic classicist wince, though it has been around since 1898; it is apparently here to stay, because it is a useful English adjective. No one is startled any longer by the word humanitarian (1831), though it, too, attaches an historically inappropriate Latin suffix to an abstract Latin noun. The great virtue of English is its flexibility and its receptivity to change. We can take Latin words and add Germanic suffixes, creating hybrids like graceful, masterful, brutish, and scholarly. It is an astonishing fact that there are more Latin derivatives in English today than the total number of Latin words in the largest dictionary of classical Latin. We have conquered the Romans on their own linguistic battlefield.


  1.   The celebrated Gutenberg 42-line Bible was printed in 1456; in 1476, William Caxton, who had learned his craft on the European continent, established the first printing press in England.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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