As anyone trying to learn English knows, the language is full of strange spellings and pronunciations, different ways of saying the same thing and exceptions to grammar rules that don’t seem to make any sense. This apparent lack of order is, in part, because English is a hybrid. The language we now speak is a mixture of elements from two main sources: Germanic (Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse) and Romance (Latin and French). In recent editions of Speak Up, we’ve looked at how Germanic migrants to Britain in the 5th century spoke Anglo-Saxon, which went on to form the basis of today’s English. The Vikings who invaded Britain in the late 8th century added a few words and bits of grammar from their own language, Old Norse, also a Germanic language. Today, we’ll look at how Latin sources entered English.

Roman occupation

In 43 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius crossed the Channel and invaded Celtic Britain. Roman forces gradually occupied the land, pushing west into Wales and as far north as southern Scotland. They fought Celtic leaders, established towns and cities, and stayed for nearly four hundred years until 410. Some wealthy Britons from this period did adopt a Roman lifestyle, building villas and speaking Latin, but the language never took over among ordinary people. It would be through a spiritual mission, not a military one, that Latin would make its first major contribution to English.

Missionaries from Rome

There had been Christians in Britain during the Roman period but by the late 6th century most of Britain followed Anglo-Saxon pagan practices. In Rome, Pope Gregory the Great decided that it was time to convert the inhabitants of Britain to Christianity and chose a Benedictine monk called Augustine (also known as Austin) to do the job. In 597 Augustine arrived in Kent in southern England with a team of about forty monks. He was met there by the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelberht of Kent. Aethelberht was already married to a French Christian called Bertha, and it seems that Augustine persuaded Aethelberht to convert, too. The King then helped Augustine and his monks to set up a church, an abbey and an important religious library in Canterbury, Kent. In the decades that followed, monasteries were established across Britain. And as Christianity spread, so did Latin.

Romance in English

The gift of a script

It’s possible that the greatest gift that Latin offered to the English language was not vocabulary but writing itself. There was already a tradition of Anglo-Saxon literature but, like the Vikings who came later, the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain used a writing system made up of runes. These runes were usually carved into wood or bone, making it hard to write long texts. When the missionaries from Rome brought with them a versatile Latin script designed to be written in ink on parchment, it gave new power to the Anglo-Saxon language. In order to spread the Christian message, monks translated the Bible from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, but they wrote it down using an adapted Latin script, instead of runes. Anglo-Saxon literature, which was no longer limited to the runic writing system, flourished.

The arrival of French

Nearly five centuries after the arrival of Augustine, English got its most significant injection of Latin influence, this time in the form of Latin-based Old French. In 1066, William of Normandy sailed to Britain from northern France to claim the English crown. After a battle near the town of Hastings on the south coast, in which the English king Harold was shot in the eye with an arrow and killed, William was crowned king. For the next three centuries, French would be the language of power in Britain. As many as ten thousand French words (most with their roots in Latin) are thought to have entered the English language during this period. They greatly expanded the vocabulary of the developing English language and in most cases did not replace existing Anglo-Saxon words but added an alternative. Mixing the Romance elements with Germanic ones made English untidy and illogical... but so much richer.