Tuesday, March 31st, 2020...18:16

Why is English Germanic and not a Romance Language?

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Miguel Dela Pena

Sundberg, Minna. “The Indo-European & Uralic Language Families.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media, 23 Jan. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/education/gallery/2015/jan/23/a-language-family-tree-in-pictures

I was told even before this class, but also in an educational setting, that most of the English lexicon has Latin roots, and a few previous classes have discussed how Latin was a high-status language and was used in grammar schools in England, so I was confused why English is considered a Germanic language when Latin is not. After a bit of searching, I found that a good number of people are, too. The following are just some reasons for the classification of English:

Lexical Influence

I remember being told before coming to university that around 80-90% of the English lexicon has Latin roots. This is why I, and a few people online, was confused as to why English is called a Germanic language instead of a Romance language like the descendants of Latin. However, lexical influence is the shallowest level at which a language can influence another because it is easy to take a word from another language and to incorporate it into our own. For example, there are a lot of French (and, indirectly, Latin) loanwords in English, but that is not enough to call it a Romance language or dialect of French. That would be like calling Japanese a dialect of English because of their japanization of English words.

Multiple sources also put forward estimates showing that the lexical influence of Latin is not as high as we think. Dayna Watsica, an educator on enotes,com puts it at 70%, but their response also contains some misconceptions about the influence of Latin on English so this high estimate becomes a bit doubtful. Watsica claims that our pronoun case system is because of Latin, but pronouns were already being inflected for case even before contact with Latin. Some user questions on Quora give estimates of around 60%, although it is hard to tell where they got this estimate. Dictionary.com claims that only about 10% of Latin has made its way into English without the assistance of intermediary languages like French, which is an actual Romance language. A computer analysis from 1973 by Dieter Wolff and Thomas Finkenstaedt places the percentage at 28% (cited in Kellerman and O’Conner). So, even if lexical influence could be considered a deep linguistic influence, the influence of Latin is still arguably weaker than what most people think.

Grammatical Influence

Compared to lexical influence, grammatical influence is considered a much deeper level of influence. The influence of Latin on English grammar though, is even shallower.

Split infinitives used to be taught as an actual grammatical mistake. This rule, however, is just a prescriptive rule which carried over from Latin that does not even fit English that well. I say rule, but this was not exactly a rule in Latin. It was just impossible to split Latin infinitives because they were all usually single words: amare (to love), errare (to wander), videre (to see), etc. (Keller and Russell 25). English infinitives, as we can see, can be split perfectly fine. To completely avoid splitting them would be a waste of this added flexibility granted by the English language.

The eight parts of speech that we use to classify English words also come from Latin. These eight also do not describe English words that well, though. The Latin language did not use either definite or indefinite articles. None of the eight parts of speech can tell us what articles are. They are not nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, or interjections. Some grammar classes teach that articles modify nouns – that they are adjectival, but are they? It is easy enough to say that words like big and happy are adjectives; they add something to any word that follows them, but a/an and the do not necessarily do that.

I looked into whether or not Latin influenced the function words of English as well to see if any Latin function words, like conjunctions, made it into English because that would be a sign that it does have a deeper influence. The OED shows, however, that most of our more commonly used conjunctions such as for, and, but, yet, and or originate from Old English, and that there are only two conjunctions from Latin – except and proviso – one of which we don’t even use in regular speech or writing. The same is true for prepositions.

As for word order, that of Latin is also not like English. Modern English preserves Old English word order. OE does have a laxer word order due to its complex morphology which unfortunately has been lost, but more often than not, the word order was Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). Latin also has a rather complex morphology and therefore lax word order, but the general order taught in Latin classes is SOV:

Language Sample Sentence Word Order
Modern English I wrote this paper. S – V – O
Latin

 

Femina filiis dona dat (neutral word order)
The woman to (her) sons gifts is giving
(Keller and Russell 41)
S – O – V
Old English

 

Soðlice sum monn haefde twegen suna.
(Knott and Moore 37)
Truly a certain man had two sons.
S – V – O

The Roman Alphabet

I have been writing so much in it that it is amazing that I have not mentioned it. The Roman alphabet that this blog post and almost literally everything English speakers read is written in is also due to Latin. The Roman alphabet was used to write Latin texts, and Old English had its own script (the runic alphabet futhorc). When Latin speakers came into contact with English writing, they imposed the Roman alphabet on it, despite its phonology. They actually had to bring in characters from the OE script because they knew that the Roman alphabet was inadequate. For example, Latin does not have an interdental fricative, so they had to take the eth <ð> and the thorn <þ> to represent those sounds in early writing. It would have been much easier to just keep using the OE script because it represented sounds in the English language much better, except for vowel length which readers had to figure out through the vowel’s surrounding letters.

These are just some of the reasons for English’s classification as a Germanic instead of a Romance language. Latin actually has very little influence over English, and that very little influence does not even fit or describe the English language that well. Everything that matters in the construction of English as a language can all be traced back to its older Germanic form, hence its Germanic language label.

Works Cited

“If 60% of English vocabulary is Latin-based, why is it considered a Germanic language?” Quora. 2020. Web. Accessed 18 Jan. 2020. https://www.quora.com/If-60-of-English-vocabulary-is-Latin-based-why-is-it-considered-a-Germanic-language

Keller, Andrew, and Stephanie Russell. Learn to Read Latin. 2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2015.

Kellerman, Stewart, and Patricia T. O’Conner. “Why Is English a Germanic Language?” Grammarphobia, WordPress, 30 Nov. 2019, www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/01/why-is-english-a-germanic-language.html.

Knott, T. and S. Moore. “Reading: Luke 15:11-19.” ENG 301: The Elements of Old English: Elementary Grammar, Reference Grammar, and Reading Selections, U of Saskatchewan Bookstore, Fall 2017.

[OED.] Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford UP, 2020. www.oed.com. Accessed 12 Feb. 2020

Watsica, Dayna. “In What Way Did Latin Influence the English Language? When? How?” Enotes.com, Enotes.com, 2020, www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-way-did-latin-influenced-english-language-137939.

“What Percentage Of English Words Are Derived From Latin?” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, 23 Dec. 2019, www.dictionary.com/e/word-origins/.



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