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I was watching a video linked in this answer and it made the following claim:

[...] like most words in English is derived from German.

That got me thinking. While I know that Germanic languages have greatly influenced English, so have the Latin and Celtic ones (and various others to a greater or lesser degree). Is it true that more than 50% of the English vocabulary is derived from Germanic roots?

More generally, can someone point me to data on this? I imagine attempts have been made to quantify the contribution of different languages to English; what were the results? What percentage of the language comes from each source?

Ideally I would like to see this expressed in terms of % of words but I am aware that, at least to some linguists, attempting to quantify vocabulary is anathema (to give a simple reason, all languages that allow number construction have an infinite vocabulary by definition), so alternative approaches to quantifying this are also welcome.

  • I don't see the link. – MetaEd Mar 6 '14 at 0:11
  • Possible duplicate of English words of Latin origin: Did they replace existing words? . Note that it matters greatly whether you take an unweighted percentage of words noted in a particular dictionary ( you will get many more Latinate words) or whether you weigh the words by frequency (many more Germanic words). The latter is equivalent to counting the word the in a corpus every time it occurs; the former is equivalent to counting the only once in the entire (same) corpus. – Cerberus Mar 6 '14 at 0:35
  • The latter depends somewhat on genre; the former depends greatly on the size and composition of your corpus. A large dictionary will have a disproportionately large percentage of Latinate words, it is a bit meaningless. – Cerberus Mar 6 '14 at 0:39
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    There are two obvious means of measuring. One is akin to selecting words from a dictionary and collecting them by origin. Another would be selecting words heard or read and collecting them, which would more heavily weight commonly used words. – Oldcat Mar 6 '14 at 1:03
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    It is a bit lop-sided to say Germanic languages have influenced English. English is originally a Germanic language. But it has adopted French vocabulary (30 per cent) and Latin vocabulary ( also 30 per cent). – rogermue Jul 27 '15 at 5:19
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Wikipedia has the following pie chart showing the word origins:

It shows the breakdown as

  • Latin (including words used only in scientific / medical / legal contexts) ≈ 29%
  • French ≈ 29%
  • Germanic ≈ 26%
  • Greek ≈ 6%
  • Others ≈ 10%

It cites some references which back up these numbers but I don't have access to those.

To answer your question, it does not appear to be true that 50% of words are Germanic. However, that probably depends on what your context is. If you exclude scientific, medical, and legal, you will probably find a much lower incidence of Latin words. Given that English is itself a Germanic language, it's more surprising that Germanic doesn't account for MORE of the vocabulary.

  • Nice find, your google-fu beats mine apparently. Thanks! – terdon Mar 6 '14 at 0:24
  • Hang on, that seems to be claiming that words derived from proper nouns are about as many as those derived from Greek. I guess they're not counting the Greek that has come in through the back door of Latin? – terdon Mar 6 '14 at 0:28
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    You might do better with a frequency weighting, as the "Saxon" words are shorter and more common. – Oldcat Mar 6 '14 at 0:35
  • @Oldcat It isn't clear from the wikipedia article what method they used for surveying words. Arguments could be made either way for simply counting all the known words and for weighting the words by frequency. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Mar 6 '14 at 14:01
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I speak both English and Spanish and have made a full comparison between the two languages. Roman languages use the SVO (subject-verb-object) construction while Germanic languages use V2O. English is a fusion of a Germanic language (the so called Anglo-Saxon) and the Norman French. In this natural process that lasted for 400 years, the French grammar overimposed to the Anglo-Saxon one. If you compare how to build sentences in English and French or Spanish you will find little differences, which are much bigger when compared to German. English is clearly to me a Roman language due to its evolution, far away from its Germanic roots.

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The question is: Is the English language a Germanic or Romance language, and what criteria will you use to determine the answer? One could argue that the History of England is similar to that of. the other five Romance languages in that the Romans conquered France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and Italy. The presence of the Romans in England lasted approx. 400 years. Then the French invaded and they added many new words. The scientific revolution added also. Therefore, if the preponderance of the words are derived from Latin and uses the above comments, the conclusion is: that English is a Romance language.

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    Most of the Latin-speaking provinces of the Roman Empire were conquered by German (and/or Norse) speaking barbarians, whose descendants adopted the language of the people they conquered. Whereas England was settled by Angles, Saxons, Jutes (and later Vikings), who retained their Germanic languages. – Jasper Dec 15 '14 at 2:45
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    @Jasper: actually, England was conquered by Angles, Saxons, Jutes in more or less the same way the France was conquered by Franks; there were lots of inhabitants of both countries before the German barbarians came, and these inhabitants kept on with their lives (maybe less pleasant now), but with new rulers. – Peter Shor Jul 26 '15 at 22:41

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