The Influence of Latin on Old English

Edward Moore

copyright 2000

Latin (L) influenced the development of Old English (OE) more than any other non-West Germanic language with which OE came into contact. Most scholars divide the influence of L chronologically into three time periods. The first time period concerns such influence as occurred on the continent prior to the arrival of Anglo-Saxons in England and which arose from contacts between West-Germanic speaking peoples and L speakers. The second period of influence spans from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England up to their Christianization ca. 600/650. The last period of influence spans from the time of Christianization up to the arrival of the Normans in 1066.

The most readily apparent influence that L had on OE concerns the use of the L alphabet. Prior to the Christianization of England, what little writing there was, was written with runic letters. Collectively these letters comprised the futharc alphabet (called so after its first six letters). Through the influence of Irish insular script, OE scribes adopted the L alphabet. They did so with only slight modification and the retention of certain runic letters. Modifications included the use of L <d> with a line through it, <ð> ("eth"), to represent both /q / and /ð/. Somewhat later, they also used the rune thorn, <þ>, to represent these two phonemes. Finally, they incorporated the rune wynn, < >, to represent /w/.

It is more difficult to determine L influence on OE syntax. Naturally, our knowledge of OE syntax is hindered by the general paucity of extant OE texts. Furthermore, many of the surviving OE texts are translations of L texts, and even when they are not, many nonetheless reflect a clear dependence on L models. Consequently, it is difficult to account for the syntactical irregularities of OE texts with any certainty. Such irregularities could represent the influence of L or – just as likely – an otherwise poorly evidenced aspect of OE syntax. Nonetheless, scholars agree that certain constructions – whether native to OE or not - likely did find wider distribution in OE through the influence of L than would otherwise have occurred. Such was likely the case, for example, with the OE "dative absolute" construction as modeled on the L "ablative absolute." While this construction appears rarely in the conservative prose of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is ubiquitous in the highly Latinate translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

Not surprisingly, L held the most pervasive influence on OE in the area of vocabulary. Moreover, this sphere of influence provides the clearest index of the changing relationship between OE and L speakers. In total approximately 450 OE words, mostly nouns, were borrowed from L (Baugh, 106). Around 170 of these entered the OE lexicon during the continental period (Hogg, 302; Williams, 57). These words pertain mostly to plants, household items, clothing and building materials. As such, they represent the influence of Vulgar (i.e. spoken) L rather than Classical (i.e. literate) L. It is uncertain how many words date from the second period of L influence. In general though, scholars maintain that there are slightly fewer borrowings dating from this period. With the exception of a comparatively larger number of words having to do with religion and learning, borrowings from this period pertain to the same subject matter as those of the first period (Hogg, 302-3). In strong contrast with the two preceding periods, the third period shows a marked increase in words concerning religion and learning. The influx of such words clearly reflects the influence of the literate, CL culture associated with the Church following the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons. In addition to direct borrowings, L also influenced the OE lexicon by occasioning the formation of semantic loans, loan translations (or calques) and loan creations. Consider, for example, the semantic loan OE cniht for L discipulus, in which native OE cniht, "boy" or "servant," assumes the additional sense of L discipulus, "disciple." Such translations are abundant in the OE lexicon. Equally prevalent are loan translations, in which a L compound word is translated using morphologically equivalent native elements: e.g. OE foreberan < L praeferre. Loan creations are also numerous. Like loan translations, loan creations translate the L word using native elements but with greater morphological freedom: e.g. OE restedæg for L sabbatum.

The overall abundance of semantic loans, loan translations and loan creations suggests a final and more general truth concerning the influence of L on OE. Despite the relatively extensive influence of L on OE, OE clearly shows a strong tendency to rely on native resources. That is to say, given the linguistic conditions of OE period, one would expect L to have exerted a far greater influence than in fact our knowledge of OE suggests.

For further reading

Baugh, Albert C. A History of the English Language. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1957. 86-106

Hogg, Richard M., ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Williams, Joseph M. Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History. New York: The Free Press, 1975