John Larrysson's Column: Latin in Upper-Class English

In English, high-status words are often from Latin. For a long time the kings and queens of England were foreigners, whose family had invaded England. They often spoke French and Latin. They certainly would avoid speaking English, that was the farmer's language. The effect on the English language was dramatic. Even when English finally became the normal language of government, people still used some Latin/French words to sound important.

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Sometimes English words were seen as lower class and upper class people wanted a more posh sounding word. The English word autumn was taken from the Old French (originally from Latin autumnus). There was a perfectly good English word for the season, harvest (from the Old English hærfest). However that sounded too lower class, using the word harvest made one sound like a farmer. The word autumn replaced it.*

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People who wanted to sound more important used words like circle, annual and vocabulary because they were (mispronounced/mispelt) Latin from circulus, annualis and vocabularium. Being more difficult to spell seemed to be a point in their favour. Upper class people certainty preferred them to regular English words such as ring, year and word which came from the Old English hring, gear/ger and word.

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Even today, people who are experts in some technical, scientific or academic field often use obscure technical language, sometimes because these words have very well-defined meanings within the field, but sometimes just to prove that they are experts and can understand words that the common people do not. For example consider this statement by my old microbiology professor, "We microbiologists don't say grow bacteria; we say culture prokaryotic micro-organisms." 

So remember that some English words are for common use and others are used by important people. You have a pet dog, from the Scottish Gaelic peata and Old English docga. The police have a canine unit, from the Latin caninus unitas.

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Footnote: The word fall was also used, but is now seen as too American for most British people's taste. Which is ironic, because the word was originally British English.

Related Articles:

English & Latin

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Latin in Government English

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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