Back to the Syllabus
As the title of this page suggests, English does not descend from either Latin or Greek. There is no sense in which you can "trace English back to" either Latin or Greek; genealogically, these two languages are like very distant great-great aunts or uncles of English.
Nevertheless, a large percentage of modern English vocabulary comes from classical Latin and Greek--which accounts for the common misperception that Latin and Greek are somehow "earlier" versions of English. Today's page will attempt to account for the Latin and Greek elements of English. And, since those elements are so important, particularly in "learned" (academic, scientific, professional) English, it's worth knowing something about the history of Latin and Greek, in order to place the development of English in its European context.
The basic reason for the many Latin and Greek words in modern English is that in their own time, the classical versions of these languages were, like English today, international languages with a dominant effect on the educational systems and culture of the rest of their world. Just as it's hard to think of a world language today escaping at least some influence from English, so it's hard to think of any western European language that has evaded the influence of Latin and Greek at some time in its past. (Remember that at some time in their past, all the modern Romance languages were Latin.)
Let's look briefly at each language and give a capsule history of how it came to such a dominant position internationally.
Greek, a language with prehistoric origins, is still quite "alive" as the national language of Greece. Historical records of the Greek language go back to the 1200s BCE, giving Greek the longest recorded history of any European language. The most important thing to realize here is that "Greek" is an abstraction. There was no nation called "Greece" in ancient times, even in the sense in which the Roman Republic was a nation; there were simply a lot of small political units, many of them literally isolated (on islands). Even the Macedonian empire, which exported Greek to most of the Middle East in the 300s BCE, did not displace the languages of the peoples it conquered; it simply added a layer of administrative, literary and educational Koine to local linguistic situations that were often very complicated. Jesus Christ, for example, was a Jew who lived in Roman Palestine. Very few people there spoke Latin (see below); Jesus and most Jews of the time and place spoke Aramaic, a language unrelated to Latin or Greek. Yet educated, literate people in Palestine communicated internationally with other educated, literate people in Koine Greek. Hence, the Gospels and Epistles of the Christian New Testament were written in Koine, and circulated throughout the "world" in Greek. The Greek world allowed local cultures to flourish, but translated their activity into Greek for wider use.
By the first century CE, the Greek world was largely ruled by Romans, requiring us to backtrack a little and consider
Unlike Greek, which is a general term for the dialects of many different "city-states," Latin is the language of a single "city-state," Rome, in Italy. Latin had pretty humble beginnings. In fact, for most of the first millennium BCE, it was much less important in Italy than Greek, which dominated colonies in Sicily and the "heel" and "toe" of the Italian peninsula. Latin is part of the Italic family of languages that included major (now-defunct) ancient languages like Oscan and Umbrian.
How did Latin become so internationally important? The Romans had a different attitude toward colonization and conquest than did the Greeks. The Greeks remained an international class of rulers, dominating trade; they were not averse to military conquest, but they did their best work as economic and cultural persuaders. The Romans had the conquer / dispossess / enslave / and (if necessary) sow-their-fields-with-salt mentality. As the Romans conquered the Italian peninsula, Gaul (modern France), Iberia (Spain/ Portugal) and North Africa, they tended to expropriate previous dwellers, plant their own soldiers and colonists there, and replace local cultures with their own. As a result, we know almost nothing of many pre-Roman languages from these areas, including Etruscan, Ibero-Celtic, and Carthaginian.
The one language that the Romans never uprooted was Greek,--for a number of reasons, largely because Greek was more widely and better established, had a literary tradition that impressed the Romans and made them envious (in an emulating, not extirpating, way), and Greek circulated over a wide territory that was heavily populated, urban, and economically developed. Even though the Romans conquered most of the former Greek empires, and colonized Egypt (for example) quite heavily, their Latin language was always an alien thing in the eastern Roman Empire.
Hence (to return to the first century CE) the early association of Christianity with the Koine dialect of Greek, not with Latin. When the Roman Empire became officially Christian in the fourth century CE, Latin Christians became committed to the translation and preservation of Greek culture. (Greek Christians, naturally, just kept on preserving their own Greek tradition.)
were preserved by generations of scholars in a fixed written form, based on the literary standards of an earlier period. For the Greek language, the classical period is the fifth and fourth centuries BCE; for Latin, it's the first centuries before and after the beginning of the common era. Educators and rhetoricians, from those times forward to the 1800s, set great store by teaching people to compose classical Greek and Latin, no matter what their native "vernacular" languages were, throughout Europe. In Christian instruction, the emphasis on preservation and transmission of the language was important, though in this case the relevant literary dialects were first-century CE Koine (for Greek) and the Latin of the Christian communities in the west from the fourth and fifth centuries CE (this Latin is often called Vulgar Latin, somewhat misleadingly for English speakers, because "vulgar" in Latin simply means "common" or "spoken," much like Koine does in Greek). Koine Greek is obviously still crucial today as a mainstay of Christian seminary training. As the centuries went on, spoken Latin and Greek drifted further and further from either classical or "vulgar" literary standards. By the year 800 in both languages, literary usage was remarkably different from spoken usage. (In one sense, literary usage is always different from spoken usage.) In the time of Charlemagne (c800 CE), it was still common for priests reading Latin aloud to say the Latin words as if they were Old French, or Old Spanish-- in effect, to translate as they went from an archaic written text into a spoken vernacular that was by now a different language. The same is true of the Byzantine Greek of that time period. Only as the year 1000 approached was it possible for the literate to begin to separate Latin (or Greek) from the spoken dialects that were clearly now new languages, and to recreate a pronunciation for the now "dead" classical Latin and Greek of the literary tradition. These "dead" languages became the potent base for educational traditions both east and west, often because the learning preserved in classical texts was valued as the most vital source of authority about the world.
Much is made of the "Dark" (500-800) and "Middle" (800-1300) Ages in Europe, as if these were times of complete loss of cultural transmission from a "brighter" or "better" classical time. There certainly was a lapse in the knowledge of Greek in Western Europe between the 400s and the 1500s. But the reality is not quite so "dark." Early and late medieval Latin was an unbroken tradition in the West (it simply preserved different things than the scholars of the "Renaissance" and after wished it had, concentrating on sacred rather than secular texts). In the East, the Byzantine empire preserved Greek literary tradition, and Islamic scholars learned both Greek and Latin, participating in preservation of many texts during the great classical period of Arabic learning (700-1400). The western Renaissance (1300-1600), with its emphasis on secular learning and science, had a profound effect on the vocabulary of a developing language like English. There are many Latin terms in Old and Middle English, reflecting first the impact of Roman culture (wine, cheese) and then the impact of Christian Latin (vespers, trinity), Early Modern English (after 1500 or so) reveals a huge influx of words from a "revived" classical Latin that had become once again the language of international literary and academic business in the West. This revived Latin was much more a written than a spoken language. As writers of English became largely educated in Latin (and later, Greek), they borrowed Latin terms in English, on the assumption that English readers would have a "classical" education.
That Early Modern process can be seen in any paragraph of Modern academic English. In the one I've just written, for example, Latin words include: cultural, transmission, classical, medieval, tradition, sacred, secular, literary, vocabulary, influx, educated, and assumption. The Greek influence is slighter, but includes "scholarly" and "academic," for instance. In fact, the "classical" culture is of a piece; many Latin words borrow from Greek, and many English words come from French adaptations of Latin and Greek words. Education in Latin was much more fundamental than Greek in the early modern period; Ben Jonson says of Shakespeare, for instance, that he had "small Latin, and less Greek," a feature of Shakespeare's having a good elementary education but little of what we'd consider secondary or college education--hence, Shakespeare missed Greek, the more advanced subject. Today, I'd estimate that Greek is more taught than Latin in the U.S., thanks to a vigorous Protestant seminary tradition and the decline of Latin within the Catholic Church since the 1960s.
The great majority of Greek and Latin borrowings into English date from after the year 1500. They are mostly "learned" or technical words, though many have become widespread and thoroughly assimilated into English.Borrowings and new coinages in English during the years 1550-1950 tended to draw from Latin and Greek, especially in the sciences. This was because during those four centuries Latin and Greek were the basis of all higher education. Educated people who added new vocabulary items to express new concepts or newly discovered objects drew from their primary education in Latin and Greek. Just as a tiny example, think of basic Greek words in chemistry and physics that have become everyday words in English. Atom is Greek "uncuttable." Electricity is "lightness." Oxygen is "fast gas"; hydrogen is "water gas." Dinosaur is "awful lizard." All these words were first used in their modern sense in the period of transition between Early Modern and Modern English, or in Modern English.
Since 1950 the whole cultural literacy of the sciences has changed. Proton and neutron, first used early in the 1900s, have Greek roots. But quark, coined in the 1950s, is a nonsense word from the Irish novelist James Joyce. Some individual sorts of quarks are chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, reflecting a generation that grew up on American ice cream. Computer is Latin and technology is Greek, but more recent terms in computer technology: "boot," "cookie," "firewall," "hacker," &c. reflect a monolingual English culture for their inventors. Technical English now tends to draw on the resources of its own language rather than borrowing.
Learning Latin and Greek will help you understand a lot of difficult English vocabulary--but it has little or nothing to do with the origins and early development of the English language.
In a sense, neither Latin nor Greek is "dead" today. Hundreds of millions of people speak languages descended from Latin, even though Latin grew too large to maintain a single coherent existence. There are only about 12 million native speakers of Greek today, but they still inhabit a discrete political unit that happens to be the original homeland of Greek over 3,000 years ago.