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might think that most of these words would have come in a long
time ago when more people spoke Latin, but in fact the opposite is
true. In the last hundred years or so we have taken in more words
from this source than ever before. If anything, the rate seems to be
increasing rather than decreasing.
Do we want our digital TV channels via satellite or via cable?
That is a question of current interest in the year 2004. Twenty years
ago there was no digital broadcasting, ¬fty years ago there were no
satellites, and a hundred years ago we did not even have the word
television.The whole question would have been completely incompre-
hensible a century ago, but the words with which it is framed would
have been partly understood by anyone who had learnt Latin.
Digital is formed from the Latin word digitus ˜¬nger™, which had
over time acquired the secondary meaning ˜digit™, as witness the
English word digit which is a loan from Latin and which only has the
secondary sense. The link here is obviously the fact that we use our
¬ngers for counting. A digital transmission involves transmitting
ones and noughts instead of continuously changing waves.The word
television consists of the stem of the Latin word vísio ˜sight™ pre¬xed
by the Greek word tele ˜far away, distant™. The word satellite was
quite uncommon in English before the 1950s, being used used only
by astronomers for the moons which orbit some of the planets and
by the odd science ¬ction writer. Since we have managed to launch
objects into space and make them orbit the earth, the term, which
comes from Latin sat©lles (sat©llitis in the genitive) meaning ˜attend-
ant™, has been charged with a new meaning.
All the key terms in our question have their origins in Latin. The
same goes for the word channel. This has existed in English for
many hundred years, but actually it originally comes from Latin
canalis via French (as opposed to canal, which comes directly from
Latin). The giveaway here is the initial cha as opposed to ca. Many
Latin words which began ca were changed in Old French so that they
had the initial sound which we spell ch. In many cases it is the French
form which ends up in English, e.g. chapel, chart, chapter beside

A natural history of Latin

Latin capella ˜chapel™, charta ˜document™, capitulum ˜heading™, but
sometimes we end up with both as in the case of channel and canal,
or enchant beside incantation, both, from in ˜in™ cantare ˜sing™.
It™s the same in ¬eld after ¬eld. If you are on a diet and are careful
about your intake of proteins and calories, you are also using ancient
words in disguise. Diaeta ˜manner of living as prescribed by a phys-
ician™ is an old Latin medical term which originally comes from
Greek. The word ˜calorie™ was created at the beginning of the
nineteenth century from the Latin word calor˜heat™,in the ¬rst place as
a unit for measuring energy.The word protein has been formed from a
Greek word proteion ˜the beginning™ and a Latin suf¬x,-in, which
is found in many names for substances. The great Swedish chemist
Jons Jacob Berzelius seems to have been the ¬rst to use this term in
the 1830s to refer to a class of substances which are of vital import-
ance in living organisms. The word exists in all major European
languages (and probably in many other languages too), where in one
sense it could be seen as a loanword from Swedish. It belongs to a
large group of modern scienti¬c words which, once coined, spread
rapidly from country to country, and which are truly international,
simply because the word stems are from Latin or Greek and not from
any of the languages which are spoken today.
Quite a few words of this kind have become so common in
everyday usage that they have been abbreviated beyond recognition.
A bus takes its name from the Latin word omnibus which means
˜for all™. It would have seemed a very strange way to abbreviate the
word to a Roman, since -ibus is the case ending of the dative plural
and was shared by literally thousands of words in the language.
A bicycle has two wheels, so the name bi- ˜two™ -cycle ˜rotation™ is
transparent, but that transparency is lost in the abbreviated form
bike. A recent coining in English is burb, used ¬rst as an abbrevia-
tion of suburb and later to mean a region or a space, especially on
the internet, where numerous special interest groups have estab-
lished burbs to exchange news and thoughts. Suburb is a transpar-
ent Latinism from sub ˜under™ and urbs ˜city™, but the truncated
form burb adds the last consonant of the pre¬x to the stem to create

Latin and Europe

an entirely opaque form that can then itself be pre¬xed, as in the
1980s coinage technoburb.
Once the need arises, such abbreviations often catch on very fast.
A recent example is mobile telephone, which literally means some-
thing like ˜moving distant sound™ (phone means ˜sound™ in Greek).
But the expression is long, and practically nobody says anything
more than mobile nowadays.
These are just a few examples of the thousands of modern words
in English which come from Latin or Greek. It would take a pretty
large book to list them all. Anyone who is interested in the origin of
a given word can look it up in the etymological dictionaries. If you
do not know the ancient languages, it can often be dif¬cult to work
out the origin of a word, but there are certain characteristics which
can give you a clue. Loans from Latin very often start with a pre¬x,
like in- ˜in-™, de- ˜from™, ex- ˜out™, and con- ˜with™, so it is easy to see
that words like consume or industry come from Latin. And very
often they end with a suf¬x that derives from Latin such as -(at)ion,
-ant or -ent, and -(at)or: e.g. explosion, gestation, mutant, absorbent,
vector, generator, and many more.Words that come from Greek can
sometimes be recognized by sounds or combinations of sounds
which are not common in Latin or in English. Foreign words which
contain y or start with ps often come from Greek, like psychology
(the study of the psyke ˜mind, soul™), or analysis from ana ˜up™ and
lysis ˜detaching™. (Interestingly, in English we use the other end
of the scale when we talk of breaking something down into its
constituent parts.) They can also be recognized by pre¬xes like
epi- ˜on™, en- ˜in™, or peri- ˜around™, as in epigraphic, entropy or
You can ¬nd out quite a bit about the background of English words
by studying the list of Latin words at the back of this book, where
I have included many of the most common word stems and pre¬xes
and suf¬xes. If you want to acquire a more detailed understanding of
how words are formed, there are handbooks on the subject, but to
consult these you will also have to learn the fundamentals of Latin
properly and preferably also quite a bit of Greek.

A natural history of Latin

So far we have talked about all the modern European languages
together, but there are in fact interesting differences between them
in the way they adopt loanwords, as will emerge in the next

Latin and German
Whereas English in general has been fairly susceptible to borrowing
foreign words of all kinds and hence has adopted modern scienti¬c
terminology in something very close to the original Latin and Greek
form, other languages have often been more resistant, and have
resorted to coining words for the new concepts from their own
resources. Where English has television German has Fernsehen,
which is made up of fern ˜far™ and sehen ˜see™. Nonetheless the struc-
ture of the German word is copied from the structure of its Greco-
Latin model. This process is known as loan translation or calquing.
Another domain where we can see the same process at work is in the
names of the basic scienti¬c elements. In English we have oxygen
and hydrogen, which have been taken over directly from the French
names coined by Lavoisier. The ¬rst parts are Greek roots meaning
˜acid™ and ˜water™ respectively and -gen means ˜give birth, produce™
(as in generate, congenital, etc.). In German the names follow the
same idea, but using native ingredients: Sauerstoff ˜acid material™
and Wasserstoff ˜water material™.
All of which is not to say that German does not have any scienti¬c
Latin and Greek loans. For example, the ¬rst part of nitrogen can be
used as a pre¬x as in the name of the explosive nitroglycerine and for
this purpose German too uses nitro-, whence Nitroglyzerin. And the
German for ˜molecule™ is Molekül, from Latin mol©cula ˜small mass™.
German too, like most other European languages, has its share of
more specialist vocabulary derived from Latin such as mathematical
concepts like Summe ˜sum™, Prozent ˜percent™, or terms of politics and

Latin and Europe

administration like Nation ˜nation™, Kanzler ˜Chancellor™, and
Kongress ˜congress™.
Less immediately detectable are the words that entered German
during or immediately after the imperial period. We have already
seen how Kaiser, the German word for ˜emperor™, is simply the
name Caesar preserved in something very close to its original pro-
nunciation. Other German words that stem from this era are Keller
˜cellar™ and Kirsche ˜cherry™. They, too, preserve the [k] pronuncia-
tion of the original Latin words cellárium and cerásea. In fact, this
pronunciation of very early loanwords into German proves very
nicely that the Romans of antiquity must have pronounced such
words with an initial [k]. In other instances German has the sound
[ts], as in Zelle ˜cell™ from Latin cella and Zins ˜tax™, from Latin
census ˜register, census™ (since the compiling of a register of the popu-
lation was a necessary concomitant of the levying of taxes). This
suggests that these words came into the language at a somewhat
later period, when the change from [k] to [ts] had already taken
The Roman presence in Germany can be traced too in the
etymologies of place names.Augustus conducted military campaigns
in the area and sought to reorganize its administrative boundaries.
Settlements established in his time often had the word Augusta as
the ¬rst part of their name. This has survived in different forms as in
the Swiss village of Augst, the Italian city of Aosta, or the ¬rst part of
German Augsburg, which was earlier called Augusta Vindelicorum,
literally ˜the Augustan city of the Vindelici™. Another similarly
named town, Augusta Treverorum, instead lost the ¬rst part of
its name to become modern Trier. An emperor might also name a
settlement after a member of his family, as when Claudius founded
a colony of veterans and called it Colonia Agrippinensis after his
wife, Agrippina. Her name has, however, been erased by history
and the modern place is simply called Köln. In English we call this
city Cologne, which is the French version of the Latin name for
a German town!

A natural history of Latin

Latin and French

The origin of the French language is Latin, so you might think that
anyone who has mastered Latin would be able to recognize all the
words in French. This is not so. First, all languages have a certain
turnover of words: some words lose their currency, and new ones
enter the language either as loanwords from other languages or as
newly created words. Second, the original words change gradually,
both in form and meaning, so that in the end it may be dif¬cult or
impossible to recognize them.
In French some very signi¬cant sound changes have taken place
since the time of Latin, and as a result the French words are much
more different from their Latin ancestors than are their counterparts
in Spanish and Italian. For instance ˜sing™ is cantare in Latin, cantare
in Italian, cantar in Spanish, but chanter in French. The word for
˜night™ is noctem (the accusative) in Latin, notte in Italian, noche in
Spanish, and nuit in French. The word for ˜father™ is patrem (the
accusative) in Latin, padre in Italian and Spanish, and père in French.
If you know French, you will notice that the spelling of the words
more closely re¬‚ects the Latin sounds than the pronunciation does.
For one thing there is an -r in chanter, a -t in nuit and an -e in père
only in the spelling, not in the pronunciation. Those ¬nal sounds
were heard when the present French spelling system was introduced
several hundred years ago, but they are no longer pronounced.
French words that have come directly from Latin have managed to
change so much that specialist knowledge is often needed in order to
be able to see the connection. But French is nevertheless full of words
which are very much like Latin words. An example is the word
cantique, which means ˜canticle™ and comes from the Latin canticum
˜song™ (it is mainly used about religious hymns, and about the Song
of Songs in the Bible). Similarly, the word nocturne, literally mean-
ing ˜nocturnal, by night™ from the Latin nocturnum, which has the
same meaning. And the French paternel ˜fatherly, paternal™ comes
from the Latin paternalem and also has not changed its meaning.

Latin and Europe

You might conclude that sound changes only affect some words
and not others, since the same stem in Latin can lead to completely
different results: noct- becomes nui(t) in one word but remains
unchanged in another. But it is not like that. Sound changes in a lan-
guage generally affect all the words in a language. The true explana-
tion must therefore be sought elsewhere, namely in the fact that
words like nocturne and cantique have not existed in French right
from the beginning. In particular, they were not part of French at all
during the many centuries when the sound changes took place.
Where did they come from? Well, they were obviously borrowed
from Latin, which was the language of the educated. French has great
numbers of words which have been adopted as loans from the schol-
arly Latin of many different periods, from as early as the twelfth
century and right down to our own day. Those words have not
undergone the sound changes from Latin to French, but have by and
large preserved their Latin form. Often these words also exist in
English in a very similar form.
This difference between original words and later loans from Latin
is important for everybody who studies French thoroughly. The
French call a word like nocturne a mot savant ˜learned word™, whereas
a word like père is a mot populaire ˜popular word™.The learned words
can often be recognized from English or from other modern
European languages or from Latin, since they belong to Europe™s
common international vocabulary. As far as the popular, inherited
words are concerned, it is only sometimes possible to associate them
with a word in other languages.
Even so, French learned words did not completely turn out like the
Latin ones. In some cases French uses its own endings. Consider for
instance the French word importer, which is obviously a learned
word that comes from the Latin importare ˜to matter™. As you can
see the French in¬nitive ending -er has been added to the word. In
Italian, by contrast, the word has preserved the form importare.
A case like this shows how the Latin words can be made to seem
more French, and there are many more examples. What happened in
French had a certain impact on most European languages, as French



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