Quid Pro Quo: What the Romans Really Gave the English Language

Quid Pro Quo: What the Romans Really Gave the English Language

by Peter Jones


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Peter Jones takes the reader on a fascinating journey along the highways and byways of Roman life and culture, telling the amazing stories behind the original Latin meanings and uses of hundreds of our everyday words. Taking in every aspect of the ancient world, including science, religion, military matters, politics and literature, Jones shows just how much the English language owes to the ancient Romans and the role Latin has played in the creation of our vast vocabulary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782399339
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 09/01/2018
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Peter Jones has written a regular column, "Ancient & Modern," in the Spectator for many years and is the author of various books on the Classics, including Latin Crosswords, Learn Latin, Reading Latin, and Reading Ovid.

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The Latin language is so called because it was spoken in a region of Italy called Latium, by people calling themselves Latini. It was only one of a number of Italic languages being used across Italy. One of these Latin-speaking towns was Roma, populated by Romani.

We know of twenty-two languages in all across Italy from this early period, and scholars speculate from other less secure evidence (such as strange-looking proper names) that there may have been as many as about forty. But from about 500–280 BC, by conquest and alliance, Romans came to control most of Italy, taking Latin with them wherever they went. By the first century BC, virtually all of Italy was speaking Latin. Indeed, by the first century AD, Latin was referred to as sermo Italus, 'the Italian language'. Latin sermo, 'speech, language, conversation, gossip', giving us 'sermon', seems to have been connected with a root meaning 'link up, join'.

A common form of ancient Greek had also become standard across much of the Mediterranean by this time (though not for poetry). That is why the New Testament was written in that language (and the gospels are probably accurate in saying that Jesus could speak Greek when he needed to, though Aramaic was his first language). Since Greek language and culture exerted a lasting influence over the Romans, the children of elite families also learned the literary, 'classical' Greek of the eighth to fourth centuries BC as part of their education.

By the first century AD, the Romans were also the dominant people of an empire stretching from Britain to Syria and from the Rhine–Danube to North Africa, and Latin became embedded in areas of Western Europe such as Gaul and Spain, which Rome held. Over hundreds of years, Latin in these areas gradually morphed into today's so-called 'romance' languages (French, Spanish, etc.).

'Classical Latin' is the Latin of high literature – Catullus, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, for example – composed in the first centuries BC and AD. This 'elite' Latin in its written form changed remarkably little. Even in the Middle Ages, the educated still tried consciously to copy it. By about AD1000, it had become an artificial language, but it was still learned at school for certain purposes, following fixed rules. So it remains today. Anyone who knows classical Latin will not find much difficulty in translating the Latin of the church, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or later.

But 'Vulgar' Latin – the sort used by the man on the forum omnibus – was far more malleable (vulgus, 'crowd, mob, common people', though even Cicero said that he spoke very differently from the way he wrote). It survives mainly in graffiti scribbled on the walls of Pompeii and other cities. This spoken 'sub-elite' Latin developed very differently in different areas. Indeed, it became so far removed from the elite version that by the third century AD it may well have been impossible for somebody using the elite language to understand the other (and vice versa)! It was from this common Latin that the different romance languages emerged.

The reason for Latin's long survival in the West is that Latin was the language of the universal Catholic church. So it was the language of St Jerome's translation of the originally Greek Bible (called the 'Vulgate', though not written in Vulgar Latin); the liturgy was in Latin; and it was the church that delivered education.

Consequently, when the Roman Empire in the West collapsed in the fifth century AD, Latin was at the heart of religion, education and learning. It remained in that position across Europe till at least the sixteenth century. So, during the scientific and cultural revolutions of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, it was to Latin and ancient Greek that scientists, thinkers and artists turned when they needed new words to describe the new phenomena with which they were dealing. As a result, Latin and Greek are deeply embedded in our scientific – especially botanical and medical – terminology, and our educational and cultural language in general.

But our everyday English language is also rich in Latin. When the Romans conquered these islands in the first century AD, the British language was Celtic, but Latin never took on here as it had done in Europe. In the fifth century AD the Romans left these islands to try to defend the Roman Empire in Europe against Germanic incursions from the north. As a result, invaders from Holland (Frisians), north Germany (Saxons) and Denmark (Angles, from Angeln, and Jutes) moved into England.

We call these Germanic invaders the Anglo-Saxons. Their language ousted both Celtic and what Latin there was, to become the basis of today's English. So English is basically a Germanic language. But because the Anglo-Saxons had already been in contact with the Roman Empire, their language already contained some Latin.

When these islands were Christianized from the sixth century AD, more Latin was brought in by the church, together with some Greek.

But the big change came after 1066, when the French-speaking Normans under William Duke of Normandy conquered these islands (the 'Norman Conquest'). French is a dialect of Latin, and the English vocabulary expanded massively during those 350 years of French influence.

That is why the English vocabulary contains so many words of different origins for the same ideas. Contrast Germanic 'king, kingly' with Latin-based 'sovereign, royal, regal'; Germanic 'faithfulness' with Latin 'fidelity'; Germanic 'get' with Latin 'obtain'; Germanic 'hug' with Latin 'embrace'; and Germanic 'come' with Latin 'arrive' (from the Latin ad ripam, 'to the riverbank'!). There are also many hybrid words, combining a classical stem with an Anglo-Saxon ending; for instance, Latin horrificus giving English 'horrifying'. By the time of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1380), the English language was already rich in words brought in from Norman French. By about 1600 (the period of Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible), a language recognizable as modern English had emerged.


Pope Gregory V died on 18 February 999. On his tomb it says that he spoke Francisca, vulgari, et Latina voce, and so taught the people 'in three languages'. If Francisca means 'French', this is the first written evidence we have of the separation of Latin into romance languages – French, vulgari, i.e. Italian, and Latin. But Francisca may mean 'German', because the Franks were a Germanic people and Gregory V a German pope.


When after 1066 Anglo-Saxon started to be infused with Norman French, those French words over time began to change. Thus Latin pauper, 'poor', had already become Old French povre; this was absorbed into Anglo-Saxon (at this time Anglo-Norman would be more accurate) and over time became English 'poor'.

That was one route by which Latin-based words came into English. But there was another: when a Latin word was lifted directly from Latin into English. To stay with pauper: law reports were written in Latin and Latin pauper was used in them to refer to the poor. Over time, that word came into ordinary English toos.

Another example is, indirectly via French: Latin fragilis -> Old French fraile (modern French frêle) -> English 'frail'; directly from Latin, 'fragile'.

There is even a triple borrowing: Latin ratio -> French raison -> English 'reason'; via

French, ration -> 'ration'; and directly from Latin, 'ratio'!

All in all, perhaps about 10,000 Latin- and Greek-based words entered the English language throughout the Norman period. We continue, of course, to take over foreign words, such as 'spaghetti' from Italian and 'curry' from Tamil kari.


In 1546, after fierce debate, the Council of Trent decided that Latin alone was to be used for the Mass and the sacraments, whatever language was spoken by the church congregation. The reason was that sacred acts required time-honoured ritual, couched in time-honoured language, however meaningless it might be to participants.

One result was that, when Jesuit missionaries opened up China in the seventeenth century, Chinese priests had to learn Latin. The problem was that they could not pronounce it. This surely rendered the rite invalid: so could not the Chinese have their own liturgy? No, said Rome: such was the sacred essence of Latin – and the fear of schism if any concessions were made – that all demands for a Chinese liturgy were rejected.


From the fifteenth-century Renaissance in Europe (p. 118), even more Graeco-Latin words flooded into English, and many Englishmen reacted strongly against the trend. In 1557 Sir John Cheke, first Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, moaned:

I am of this opinion that our tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixedand unmangled with borrowings of other tongues, wherein if we take not heed by time, ever borrowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house asbankrupt. For then doth our tongue naturally and praisably utter her meaning, when she borroweth no counterfeitness of other tongues to attire herself withal.

The underlined words are, of course, Latin-based, but that was not quite Cheke's point. His central concern was that pure Latin words were flooding directly into English – words such as alias, arbiter, circus, delirium, exit, genius, interim, radius, agenda, census, curriculum, lens, pendulum, rabies, squalor and tedium. This trend continued, but at a slowing pace, into the nineteenth century (when words such as consensus, omnibus and referendum made their grand entrance).


In 1573 Ralph Lever set about replacing Latinate words with honest English ones. Here are some delightful examples, one of which has actually survived:

• Conclusion: endsay

• Condition: ifsay

• Negation: naysay

• Definition: saywhat

• Proposition: shewsay

• Affirmation: yeasay

Happily, none of these projects came to anything, and the vast vocabulary of English, uniquely drawn from both Germanic and Graeco-Latin stems, helps to make it the rich, flexible language it is.


It is not just in its vocabulary that Latin had a powerful effect on English. It often affected the very structure of the language. In 1384 John Wycliffe produced his controversial translation of Jerome's Vulgate Bible from Latin into English. Part of the Christmas story read as follows:

Forsooth they, seeing the star, joyed with a full great joy. And they, entering the house, found the child with Mary his mother; and they falling down worshipped him. And, their treasures opened, they offered to him gifts, gold, incense and myrrh.

This is as literal a translation as one could find. In particular, note the underlined participles and the final participial phrase – all pure Latin.

But this was not the style of English prose, as Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), which brings together tales of King Arthur drawn from French and other sources, clearly shows. The Latinate style did not appeal to the great William Tyndale either. His version of the above passage in his 1534 translation of the Bible, derived from both the Greek and Hebrew, reads as follows:

When they saw the star, they were marvellously glad: and went into the house andfound the child with Mary his mother, and kneeled down and worshipped him, and opened their treasures and offered unto him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Farewell participles, and welcome 'when' clauses and sequences of main verbs strung together with 'and'. This is English as she oughta be wrote. King James's Authorized Version of the Bible (1611) got the message:

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Here 'when' clauses dominate, and there is again no sign of Latinate participles. So Latin vocabulary may have infiltrated the language, but Latin prose style was to affect English only in certain registers.


By the eighteenth century, most Latin texts had been translated and the local languages, not Latin, were the main vehicle of learning in schools. In America, where the English educational model was followed to begin with, Latin was soon dropped. But European schools plugged on with it, irrespective of practical use, for it had become a sort of bourgeois certificate of authenticity. Its sheer uselessness confirmed it as the ultimate symbol of the noble, liberal education, fit for the truly free man. It was his passport into the elite (lîber, 'free', -> 'liberty'; not to be confused with liber, 'book', -> 'library'). You did not actually need to know any Latin: you just needed to have learned it.


There was a time when not knowing Latin excluded, indeed defined, the unfit. One did not want the masses, especially the working masses, to get ideas above their station. As a result, it was a proud moment for a working-class family when a son of theirs became the first family member to conjugate amo amas amat ('I love, you love, he/ she/it loves' – the first exercise in Latin they would probably have encountered). Latin, then, became a language of power, bolstering the prestige of those who used it and commanding the respect of those who did not, all the more effectively for being unintelligible.


Latin served another function: it saved people from embarrassment. So when doctors talked about bodily functions, they did so in the decent obscurity of a dead language. In 1758, for example, the Swiss doctor André Tissot wrote an important medical treatise on masturbation not as sin but as disorder. It appeared under a Latin title: 'Tentamen de morbis ex manusturpratione' ('Investigation into illnesses caused by masturbation'). Even when Tissot translated it into French, the more 'shocking' passages were still left in Latin.

This practice continued well into the twentieth century. Harvard's famous 'Loeb' series of Latin and Greek texts printed the classical language on the left- hand page and the translation on the right. But sexual content was either bowdlerized in translation or, in extreme cases, the original language was repeated where the translation should have been. Indeed, in the first Loeb edition of the often obscene Roman poet, Martial, the Latin was translated into Italian! This was most useful to inquisitive schoolboys. They immediately knew where the filthy bits were and could concentrate all their energies on understanding them. Holidays in Rome were never the same, either.


Up until 1959, anyone who wanted to study any subject at Oxford or Cambridge had to have passed the Latin (or ancient Greek) examination at O level (the public exam at age sixteen, now GCSE). On 17 May 1959, by 325 votes to 278, Cambridge University decided to drop this compulsory entrance requirement. Oxford followed suit shortly afterwards.

The consequence was a flight from Latin in many state schools. But private schools kept it on. Their staff understood that Latin gave pupils an educational advantage, whichever university the pupils were considering. This was not a decision to be taken lightly. Private schools, unlike state schools, exist only by virtue of their success in the market, and in the 1960s and 1970s Latin was touted as the worst sort of regression to the 'bad old days'. But this long view, far from working against them, in fact enhanced these schools' desirability in the eyes of pupils and parents.

That debate is now past. State schools are for the most part relaxed about the 'elitist' tag pinned by a generation of knee-jerk head teachers on anything to do with the ancient world. How on earth can a mere school subject be elitist? Only humans wear that tag. So schools now feel free to ask: 'Is this language, its history and culture, objectively worth studying in its own right?' More and more are answering: 'Yes.' Who, after all, does not long to be a member of the elite?


Since Latin is no longer a spoken language, it cannot change. Its linguistic rules, variations and all, are therefore fixed: one can be dogmatic about what counts as grammatically 'right' or 'wrong'. Ancient Roman grammarians and others took this view too. They argued fiercely about 'proper' style and usage even when the language was still being spoken and therefore in a constant state of flux – as indeed did ancient Greeks about Greek.

Perhaps as a result of this, classicists in particular have the unfortunate habit of applying this prescriptive mindset to living languages like English. Since all of these are in a constant process of change, they can for the most part only be described. That is not to deny that there is such a thing as illiteracy: employers, for example, do not warm to applications for jobs written by graduates who cannot spell CV.


Excerpted from "Quid Pro Quo"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Peter Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. The Latin Language,
2. Politics,
3. Society,
4. Justice,
5. Business,
6. Education and Philosophy,
7. Writing and Literature,
8. Religion,
9. Architecture and Technology,
10. Arts, Drama and Music,
11. Warfare,
12. Medicine,
13. Botany,
14. Epilogue,

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