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It's often said that Latin and French each contribute about 29% of the English lexicon, with Germanic words an additional 26%. Wikipedia has a list of English words derived from Latin, however, a random spot check of many words shows that they have often come via French (I can't check 29% of all English words myself). Also, many of the words on that list are quite obscure, compared to the many French derived words that are in everyday use.

I like looking up the etymologies of words, and in my experience, it's very rare to find a word that's come directly from Latin. Some words like ad hoc don't seem fully naturalised into English. I know scientific language is very highly influenced by Latin, but I consider that to be specialised terminology, as is legal terminology which quite often uses Latin phrases.

If Latin and French really each contributed 29% of our modern lexicon, with French words not counting towards Latin words, why are Latin-only derived words so difficult to find?

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    I'm having trouble finding the place where it says this, but isn't that graph based on type frequency rather than token frequency? I would guess that many of the words that are analyzed as coming directly from Latin are less common. Also, it's tricky to say how to analyze words that French borrowed (as opposed to inherited) from Latin, and English borrowed from French/Latin – sumelic May 21 '18 at 3:41
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    What do you make of the list given in the article you quote? en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Jim May 21 '18 at 4:21
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    Under 'words of Australian aboriginal origin' is the word numt which is 'an abbreviated term for “nuclear mitochondrial DNA'. So I am kind of sceptical about the article, myself. – Nigel J May 21 '18 at 4:47
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    @NigelJ possibly the wiki editor copy and pasted "numt" in place of numbat, an Australian marsupial. – Mari-Lou A May 21 '18 at 6:53
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    I'm a little perplexed, could you clear up my confusion? Are you saying where English words are derived from Old French and Middle French, even in those cases where they may have derived from Latin, you consider these loanwords of French origin and unrelated to Latin? – Mari-Lou A May 21 '18 at 7:05
29

These figures are almost always the numbers for the top N words in a corpus. The results can vary considerably depending on what corpus is used and what N is (as you can see in this paper).

"The English language is a lot more French than we thought, here’s why" (by Andreas Simons, on Medium), summarizes one of the sources Wikipedia quotes for the 29% Latin figure:

The latest research was done in 1975 by Joseph M. Williams, where he examined the 10,000 most frequently used words in English, based on a rather small sample size of corporate letters. Here are my issues with his research:

  • the research carries a bias towards French and Latin, as companies are more likely to use academic language
  • proper names were not removed, possibly diluting the results for an etymological composition
  • he used the 10 000 most common words in that corpus of letters, not really “core vocabulary”

Because of these problems, the author found numbers of his own by taking a list of the 5,000 most common English words (which will be about "85% of all words in any English source") and scraping etymology sites (mostly Etymonline) to see what languages were mentioned in the first few words of each word's etymology:

Note that sometimes a word of Latin origin will return “French” using my method. This is because Etymonline always mentions French before Latin if the word entered English through French and the word changed sufficiently from the root. A word such as “origin” (from “origo”) will therefore return French, whereas a word such as “provide” (from “providere — provideo”) will return Latin.

I'm not sure how much I trust the results, but this is the most transparent analysis I found so far — the code used to generate the numbers is linked to in the article. This code can be modified to output words it classifies as Latin. I haven't run the code myself but it looks pretty simple to make these edits. Lines 220-240 in the original Sorter.py are:

    for word in words1:
        print(word)
        origin = scrape_and_interpret(word)
        if origin == "french":
            count_french += 1
            list_french.append(word)
        elif origin == "latin":
            count_latin += 1
            list_latin.append(word)
        elif origin == "old_english":
            count_old_english += 1
            list_old_english.append(word)
        elif origin == "germanic":
            count_germanic += 1
            list_germanic.append(word)
        elif origin == "greek":
            count_greek += 1
            list_greek.append(word)
        elif origin == "other":
            list_other.append(word)
            count_other += 1

Change two lines and get this:

    for word in words1:
        #print(word) # Comment out print statement that prints all words
        origin = scrape_and_interpret(word)
        if origin == "french":
            count_french += 1
            list_french.append(word)
        elif origin == "latin":
            count_latin += 1
            print(word) # Add `print` so that it prints out words of Latin origin
            list_latin.append(word)
        elif origin == "old_english":
            count_old_english += 1
            list_old_english.append(word)
        elif origin == "germanic":
            count_germanic += 1
            list_germanic.append(word)
        elif origin == "greek":
            count_greek += 1
            list_greek.append(word)
        elif origin == "other":
            list_other.append(word)
            count_other += 1

Alternatively, if you have access to the online OED, it's pretty easy to get a list by searching for current words of Latin origin, sorted by frequency. Note that many of these words also turn up when you search instead for words of French origin, since so many words have multiple etymological influences (it would be a bit strange to count them in only one direction or the other). I'm sure most people who know at least some English will recognize the top 1000 words on said list of Latin-origin words, and most educated people will recognize at least most of the next 1000 words, if not more.

  • Great. But oh, we are strengthening the question, not finding an answer yet. There may or may not be a reliable, let alone an absolute statistic on Latin words in contemporary general English usage, but the question is more about the etymo-morphology as I see it. – Kris May 21 '18 at 6:39
  • The results fit more with my anecdotal evidence. Anglo-Saxon: 37%, other Germanic: 4%, French: 38%, Latin: 18%, Greek: 1%, other/unknown: 2%. – CJ Dennis May 21 '18 at 6:44
  • It seems also that the detailed exposition prompted somone to call the question "too broad" -- just my guess. – Kris May 21 '18 at 6:44
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    Upvoted for the Python. – Michael Harvey May 21 '18 at 6:48
5

Two ways of doing these stats:

  • take a dictionary, look at origin of words, or
  • take a chunk of text, ditto.

The two can differ substantially if the second one counts occurrences. If any statistics gives 29% of words as Latin origin, then the former is the case: the stats was done on a dictionary, paying no regard to frequency of occurrence. In fact, the main Wikipedia entry for your linked statistics says this explicitly:

As a statistical rule, around 70 percent of words in any text are Anglo-Saxon.

Given that the three main lexical groups (Old English Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin) subsequently provided vocabulary for less and less familiar concepts, it is perhaps natural that the Latin items, which were the last to fill any voids, are the least frequent in terms of familiarity and frequency in (standard) texts. So it is hardly surprising that, off the top of one's head or in a random search, very few such words are found.

For some words, moreover, their exact pilgrimage into English is untractable perhaps. The word lexicon itself is an example. So I might take the stats with a grain of salt.

  • You really shouldn't say they’re “Anglo-Saxon”. You should say “Old English”, which is the name of the (Low) Germanic language that covers the various dialects spoken by the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes (in that order) who invaded Britain along with some Franks and Frisians in the centuries immediately following the withdrawal of Roman soldiers in 410. Old English, not “Anglo-Saxon”, is the ancestor of the language we’re writing in now. – tchrist May 21 '18 at 20:05
  • @tchrist Fair point, but I'm trying to keep the terminology introduced by the Wikipedia article(s) that motivated the post. It uses 'Anglo-Saxon' and "Germanic'. Moreover, given the "French" loans are largely medieval, you could probably have issues with referring to the source language as "French", too. – anemone May 21 '18 at 20:13
  • True, the “Norman French” spoken by the post-Conquest aristocracy in Britain indeed had quite a bit of non-Latin — Germanic, actually — vocabulary in it that never made its way into the language we call French today. – tchrist May 21 '18 at 20:19
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I think the issue isn't solved by computational linguistics. Ultimately the question is: Did the word enter the lexicon due to the roman invasion or the french one.

Just because French and English both have the same word doesn't mean that that English got it from French or French from English. They independently can get it from multiple different places or from the same place

Otherwise we should forget about French and Latin and instead talk about protoIndoEuropean as surely the majority of the German/French/Latin/Greek/etc. can be traced back to that.

  • English is also Proto-Indo-European. – CJ Dennis May 21 '18 at 18:45
  • There are a lot of neologisms into English from Late Latin the pre-Renaissance (Middle English) that are constructed out of latin directly rather than borrowed from a neologism in French. In other words, there are very few words surviving to Modern English that had been borrowed into Old English directly from the Roman invaders (either from within the British Isles, before ~400AD, or from Saxons who had already borrowed the words, then brought them to the isles later, after ~400AD). – Mitch May 21 '18 at 20:06
  • and lets not get into the whole parisian french vs norman french - e.g. guardian and warden – Orangesandlemons May 22 '18 at 12:00

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