Latin Influence in English Literature


Latin Influence in English Literature:

The classical influence of Latin forms a very important phase in the history of English language. This classical influence began before the settlement of the Teutonic people in England; continued substantially after their conversion to Christianity and reached its water-mark during and after the Renaissance. The Latin Influence on the English language can be divided into three successive stages which are as follows:-

Pre Christian Period:

The Teutonic forefathers of the English owing to their transactions with Roman traders, mainly dealing with the wine trade, adopted some Latin words of trade and commerce for their own benefit such as Wine from Latin vinum, cup from calicem, cheap from caupones, mint from moneta and so on. Latin loans related to household articles and cooking like cook from coquus, kitchen from coquina, kettle from catillus and so on were also adopted. Other Latin loans are the ones related to food items and fruits like pea, pepper, butter and the ones related to war and civilization such as camp, wall, street, copper and so on.

After the Conversion to Christianity:

The greatest classical influence on Old English was occasioned by the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon people to Christianity. The English borrowed a host of words connected to their new faith such as minster from Latin monasterium, priest from preblyter, monk from monachus, apostle, altar, chalice, cleric, hymn, psalm, mass, relic, shrine and so on. Loan words related to education and learning such as school, master, verse, meter, notary and the ones to do with household usage such as cap, chest, sock, silk, mat and many more were also adopted during this phase.

The Renaissance period:

The most important phase of the Latin influence falls during the period of the Renaissance, triggered greatly by the revival of learning of the fifteenth century. In the Renaissance phase, a number of French loans were remodeled under Latin influence. Thus the French ‘perfet’ became ‘perfect’ by addition of a ‘c’ from Latin perfectus. Further examples are avril – april; egal – equal and so on. Most of the Latin words adopted during this phase are root words – nouns, adjectives and verbs such as:

Noun: allurement, antipathy, acumen, circus, chaos, climax, dexterity, dogma, folio, halum and so on.

Adjectives: abject, appropriate, domestic, expensive, filial, hereditary, insane, medieval, malignant and so on.

Verbs: adapt, alienate, consolidate, eradicate, harass and so on.

A number of Latin words from the field of Science such as botany, orthopedic, insomnia, vacuum, inertia, radius and a few non-scientific technical terms such as vegetarian, sociology, facsimile etcetera were also adopted. The Renaissance period also saw the addition of a number of adjectives against native nouns such as mouth – oral, nose – nasal and the introduction of a number of synonyms such as ascend for rise and interrogate for ask.

Latin also influenced the style and syntax of English apart from enriching its vocabulary. It made English more majestic and impressive and style. The usage of the absolute participle is an importation from Latin construction and the Latin grammar was scrupulously followed by eminent English scholars.

Latin Influence – something between a hindrance and a help:

The classical influence of Latin began before the settlement of the Teutonic people in England; continued substantially after their conversion to Christianity and reached its water-mark during and after the Renaissance. Of all the foreign contributions to the English language, the Latin influence is probably the most significant in having enriched the English tongue, its syntax and style. However, the vital point that arises at this juncture is whether the latest influence from the classical languages has been a hindrance or a help or both. The Pros and cons to this point of the argument are balanced on either side of the scales.

Latin has enriched the English language enormously, especially by filling up the gaps in the native stock of words. A lot of words from various walks of life such as trade and commerce, education and learning, war and civilization and so were borrowed and adopted from Latin. Scientific terms such as botany, insomnia, radius; common words like enormous, suicide and new word-coins like talkative, witticism, international and so on exemplify the enrichment of English vocabulary by Latin. However, this was not an unmixed blessing. Such wide-scale importation from Latin stunted the growth of native vocabulary and most of these loan words could never adequately blend with the language.

The Latin influence extensively increased the number of adjectives in English. Root adjectives such as abject, appropriate, domestic, expensive etcetera were introduced and there was the addition of a number of adjectives against native nouns such as mouth – oral, nose – nasal, sun – solar and so on was also observed. However owing to the introduction of so many adjectives, English lost its habit of forming its own adjectives from native nouns by means of suffixes. Besides many of the adjectives derived from Latin were superfluous and which attacked the naturality of the language.

Latin influence brought about a massive increase in the number of synonyms such as ascend for rise, interrogate for ask, occult for hidden, identical for same and so on. Howeve, a lot of synonyms such as frigid for cold and negritude for darkness led to an unnatural and affected style and such synonyms have been avoided by masters of English prose.

Latin’s influence on the style and syntax of English added a majestic and impressive appeal to the language but on the other hand it also encouraged bombasticism and an inflated turgidity. It is true that Latin expressions and idioms sound sonorous and more refined but they are also very unusual to the ear and might mislead an average Englishman.

Last but not the least, the use of Latin is always commended on the score of international intelligibility but we must not forget that national intelligibility must always be preferred to international need.

Thus we see that Latin influence has its many advantages as well as drawbacks, none of which can be ignored. Hence, it is wise to conclude that Latin influence has been something between a hindrance and a help.

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