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According to Wikipedia, the Latin influence on English builds more than half of its vocabulary.

The same source furnishes a percentage of 26% for words of Germanic origin. Although I can easily understand that borrowing from Latin must have been very strong, especially through French, I was surprised to read this number.

So, before the borrowing, were there Germanic words that have gradually been replaced? Or did they not exist at all?

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    English was not a term used until mediaeval times (often taken as 1399, England being undefined until 1066). The language used by common people before then (as opposed to the Norman French of the court and the Latin of the Church) was largely unrecorded, so saying Latin/Romance vocabulary was 'borrowed' is no more (and no less) helpful than saying the grammatical structure was 'borrowed' from Anglo-Saxon. Many words came from Old English, some from Old Norse, some from Church Latin, some from the language of the Normans (which was largely Romance though they were themselves Vikings). – Tim Lymington Nov 10 '13 at 22:32
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    I cannot see, even if we call England only that entity that was named as such by 1066 (rather than just the area where it is, i.e., Britain) how you can claim that the language used there was Latinate before it was Germanic. In 1066, the language spoken natively by the majority of the island's inhabitants was a Germanic language with some Latin (and Celtic, Danish, Frankish, etc.) loan words in it. It was not Latinate before it was Germanic, because it was nothing before it was Germanic, except Proto-Indo-European and even earlier things. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 11 '13 at 0:33
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    The new Latinate words were predominately in intellectual fields so didn't displace existing Germanic words. Educated scholars (who were used to writing in Latin) simply adapted Latin words when they were writing in English and no English word was available. – user24964 Nov 11 '13 at 11:11
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    @JanusBahsJacquet; The language used in England was Latin before the Saxons invaded; there have been many changes since. All I did was point out that the belief that "English" sprang into existence in the 5th/6th century (obliterating its predecessors) and every change since then is a "borrowing" is ill-founded. – Tim Lymington Nov 11 '13 at 13:38
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    You might find the following resources interesting: English language timeline ; The Language Timeline on website of the British Library ; and the very humorous History of English in Ten Minutes that consists of 10 one minute videos. – None Nov 11 '13 at 15:03
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First of all, those statistics from Wikipedia may be a bit misleading, depending on your point of view. What they seem to have done is count every word in a 80,000-word dictionary once, regardless of whether the word is very rare or very frequent. Consider the preceding sentences:

-First -of -all, -those +statistics -from -Wikipedia -may -be -a -bit -misleading, +depending -on -your +point -of +view. -What -they -seem -to -have -done -is +count -every -word -in -a -80,000-word +dictionary -once, +regardless -of -whether -the -word -is +very +rare -or +very +frequent.

I've marked the words of Latin or French origin with a plus sign, the others with a minus sign. That's 11 words of Romance origin out of 44 words, so 25 %. Note that regardless is dubious, because it is a word that French had borrowed from a Germanic language. Your average spoken English contains even fewer Romance words. The percentage of Germanic words generally goes up as the Romance percentage goes down.

The reason for this is that English has a very long tail of Romance words, but they are much less frequent on average than the words of Germanic origin. If you take a list of the most common words in English, they will be overwhelmingly Germanic.


As to the replacement of existing words, yes, sometimes they replaced existing Germanic words, but at other times they rather enlarged the vocabulary, especially the various technical and legal terms. The distinction is often difficult to establish, and not seldom meaningless, because many words become less frequent on their own account, so it is not always clear whether this is caused by pressure from a new word or just for no obvious reason.

The Romance words that came to England were mostly of a high register, as in law, rhetoric, philosophy, science, etc. There was the pressure from Latin on the one hand, the lingua franca across Europe, especially in writing; and from 1066 on, there was French, the language of the conquerors, who brought with them various elements of bureaucracy and high culture in French. It is usually the simpler, more frequent words that withstand such pressure the best, whence our continued attachment to words like is, the, a, he, she, do, be, have, etc.

  • The word "bureaucracy" does not seem very appropriate for the period. I would rather say that we find a high proportion of words of French origin in the vocabulary of government and law because the Normans ruled and occupied high offices in those fields and imposed their language. Nevertheless the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror, was written in Latin. – None Nov 11 '13 at 14:53
  • An we mustn't forget William and his peers crossed the Channel in 1066 with their entourage, and that included the cooks. That's how a high proportion of culinary terms were injected into the English language. The peasant on his farm had - and still has - "sheep", and that sheep become "mutton" when in the hands of the butcher and the cook. – None Nov 11 '13 at 14:53
  • @Lau: Why do you object to bureaucracy? It is frequently used in Mediaeval and Early Modern history. I did not mean the pejorative sense, if that's what you were thinking? Dictionary.Wikipedia.Book From Ad Hoc to Routine: Case Study in Mediaeval Bureaucracy. Culinary terms is a nice example. I wonder how many non-fancy culinary terms come from French/Latin? There are many other words of course.. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Nov 11 '13 at 17:44
  • I didn't mean I found the use of the word "bureaucracy" pejorative, but I meant that I found using it to qualify the Mediaeval system of government in 11th century England out of time. I am not convinced it is, as you say, "frequently used" as regard Mediaeval history. Your pointing to one very particular example is not enough to make your point. But I am more of a linguist than a historian. – None Nov 11 '13 at 18:59
  • The word bureaucracy was coined in the 17th century (by a French economist) to qualify a certain form of government that did not exist in Mediaeval England that did not have a "government by bureaux" (to refer to the definition of the word in the OED). The word wasn't introduced into the English language until the 19th century. And yes, of course there are lots of words of French origin in the English language. – None Nov 11 '13 at 19:00

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