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Historical Explanation

As I said earlier, modern English is essentially German plus Latin. For most of my purposes, the fact that it currently is a mixture is more important than how it got that way, but it's still interesting to know a little bit about the process.

I actually didn't know about the process myself until recently. I certainly didn't learn about it in high school—in fact, I somehow managed to graduate without knowing anything about European history prior to World War I. Isn't that pitiful?

In college, I mostly stuck to math and science, but I did take one class on European history, one that went back to 1850. Germany was unified by Bismarck! And not in the distant past, but recently, in the 1860s! It was all news to me.

Then, a few years ago, I happened upon the excellent Times Atlas of European History, which is the source of my remaining historical knowledge. It was from there that I learned the Romans had once occupied Britain. That caught my imagination, so much so that when I later realized what was already well known by many, that English is a mixture of German and Latin, I figured it was at that time that the Latin had gotten mixed in.

Unfortunately, there was a little problem of timing. A helpful reader spelled it out for me.

The Romans were in Britain when the natives spoke British, which was a Celtic language, the ancestor of Welsh. They had left Britain before the Saxons arrived.

Educated Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) speakers in the Church and government of England knew Latin.

French-speaking Normans annexed Anglo-Saxon-speaking England. That's when the Latin stratum of English vocabulary came in measurably.

Fancy words came in largely in the Renaissance, or later.

So, the process was both more gradual and more indirect than I had imagined.

Finally, here's a nice but mostly unrelated bit of trivia for you. I lived in New Jersey for many years. Toward the end, looking at something or other online, perhaps some local historical society's web site, I noticed an old coin or seal with two words around the edge: “Nova Caesarea”. That's right … New Jersey is indirectly named after Julius Caesar!


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  Relation to English

o March (2000)
@ April (2002)