Latin: Impact on the English Language

Figure 1.--

Julius Caesar's invasion was a limited foray (55 BC).  The Romans during the reign of the Emperor Claudius began the conquest of Britain (43 AD) and conquered England.  It took several decades to complete the conquest, the invaders facing, among other resistance, the famous revolt of Boudica (60-61 AD).  The Roman imperium extended to the north near the modern border with Scotland.  The Romans decided it would be too costly to conquer Scotland.  Instead Hadrian had a wall built to keep out the Picts and other barbarian northern tribes (122-30 AD).  Rome thus had three centuries to Romanize the Celtic peoples of England.  I am not entirely sure to what extent Latin was adopted, but I assume that it was commonly spoken in the major cities.  When Constantine III was declared Emperor by his troops (407), he returned to the Continent, crossing the channel with the remaining units of his Roman garrison in Britain.  This essentially meant the end of Roman Britain.  The Irish, the northern tribes, and the Anglo Saxons despoiled Roman Britain.  Latin was preserved by the Church, continuing to have some impact, and for centuries was the language of intellectual discourse throughout Europe.


Another aspect of the heritage of Rome is the Lain language. This was the standard language of most of the Empire, except in the Greek east. The Lain taught in schools today is that of Caesar and Cisero. The lanuguage survived the fall of the Empire in several ways. For centuries it was the language of educated discussin throughout the Chrisytian West. It was adopted as the offical language of the Roman Catholic Church. For nearly two millenia the mass was given in Latin. And the Church attempted to prevent the translatin of the Bible into the popular European languages. Latin also became the foundatioin for the Romance languages (French, Italian. Portuguese, and Spanish). It also played an important role in the devclopment of English.

Roman Invasion of Britain

Julius Caesar while campaining in Gaul launched two expeditions accross the Channel (55 and 54 BC). Ceasar decided against a major military expedition. It is not enirely sure why. His focus at the time was on Gaul. Presumably he concluded the conquest would not justify the expense, especially when the situation in Gaul itself was not yet settled. Ceaser did, however, report on these explots to his adoring public back in Rome. The subsequent Roman invasion came a century later. Roman attempted to bring Britain within the Empire through diplomatic initiatives. By the time Rome initiated the conquest of Britain, Gaul had been firmly Romanized. Rome's new emperor, Claudius (43 AD), athorized The invasion. It was Claudiu's first foreign expedition. Successful military expeditions were important in establishing a prestigious reputation. Claudius assigned Aulus Plautius to carry out the invasion. The Britons were a Celtic people, related to the tribes of Gaul which Ceasar had conquered. The British proved to be a substantial military challenge, taking several decades to accomplish. Eventually Roman armies subjugated the British Celts and the era of Roman Britain began. The Roman conquest of Brition was characterically brutal. It took longer than Caesar's conquest of Gaul.

Roman Britain

The Roman conquest of Brition ws characterically brutal. It took longer than Caesar's conquest of Gaul. But the impact on Celtic Britain began even while the conquest was underway. Eventually Roman armies subjugated the British Celts and the era of Roman Britain began. The Romans called their new province Britannia. Some of the luxuries of the Roman Empire had reached Britain even before the conquest. There were cultural and economic links with the Celtic tribes in Gaul and these cotavts continued after the Roman conquest. The Romans brought with them many new technologies in agriculture, industry and architecture. One of the most significant imprint on Celtic Britain was urban life--a hallmark of Roman civilization. And with urbanization came a variety of luxuries. These luxuries were coveted by the Britanii. The British army built forts throughout Briton. Some were temporary emplacements. Others forts became the beginning of the major cities of Roman Britain. Almost from the beginning the Romans began constructing roads connecting these forts. The salaries paid the soldiers from an early period began attracting Celts willing to perform services of value to the soldiers and Roman officials. This included artisans, bakers, laborors, launderers, smiths, and many others. These people at first settled outside the Roman forts. The forts and Celtic selllements developed into cities. These Celts over time became Romanized to varying degrees. The Romans established definiticely that Briton was an island when Governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola dispatched a naval expedition to explore the northern reaches of the island (80s AD). Caesar left an account of his expeditions. And there are accounts of the conquest, but unfortunately very few written records of Roman Britannia have been found either in Briton or Rome itself. This probably testifies to the titality of the Anglo-Saxon assault on Roman Briton. Most of what we now know comes from archaeological and epigraphic work. With the withdrawl of the Legions (407 AD), Roman Briton was soon destroyed by Anglo-Saxon invaders. Some of the British retreated west, but the survivors seem for Celtic than Roman.

Direct Latin Impact on English

Old English was a powerful language, but in many ways a crude language. There were no Old English woirds for a wide range of sophisticated intellectual words that educated Romans might use. Many of these concepts now used in the English language thus have Latin roots. There were several ways that Latin entered Old English. First some Latin words entered Old English before the Anglo-Saxon conquests. There were contacyts between the Anglo-Saxon tribes and Rome before the conquest (1st-4th century AD). The number of such words, however, are very limited. Second some Latin entered English during the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Roman Britain (5th century). As this was a bloody war of extermintion, the number of such Latin words is very limited. The same is true of Celtic for the same reason. Third some Latin words entered English through the vessel of church Latin as the Anglo-Saxon Britains were Christianized (6th-7th century). This seems to have been the most important of the three direct routes from Latin to English. While some Latin did enter English directly, given the need for more sophistuicated tems and the long period of exposure, Old English seems remarkably resistent to Latin. More important were the Latin-root words subsequently entering English through Norman French.

Norman French

There was an indirect route that Latin words entered the English language and this was the most important route, more important than the direct route from Roman Latin. That was through the vessel of the French labnguage. The Normans that conquered England were descended from Vikings, but they were Vikings that had acquired French, a hybred language evoling from the admixture of the Germanic language spoken by the Franks and the Romanized Gallic language. The influence of Latin on French makes it a romance language. With Duke William's victory over King Harold at Hastings (1066), another major linguistic influence was added to the developing English language. William soon extended his sway over most of modern England. William made French the language of the aristocracy, but the common people continued to speak Anglo-Saxon Old English. Certain patterns of language usage begin to become clearer in Norman England. A kind of linguistic duality developed. The Anglo-Saxon peasantry raised the food, so the Germanic Old English words for meats are the same as the names of the relevant animals (calf, cow, deer, hog, sow, sheep). It was the Norman aristocrats, however, who consumed the meats so that different words for the actual foods were introduced (beef, mutton, pork, veal, and venison). Words associated with intellectual discourse commonly had Latin roots, either directly from Church Latin or indirectly from Norman French. These differences illustrate the point that language is much more than a form of communication, having important class, cultural, and political connotations [Lerer]. The influence of Latin on French meant that French was a vehicle for Latin to further enrich the English language.


Lerer, Seth. Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 305p.


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Created: 9:37 PM 6/29/2007
Last updated: 9:37 PM 6/29/2007