Latin in Modern English

English is a fascinating language in that it has had so many influences, and has adopted a great number of forms and styles from other languages in the 1500 years that it has existed. While English is a West Germanic language, and at its heart English has many Germanic features, it has also been so heavily influenced by the Romance languages, especially Latin and French, that some have called English a hybrid Germanic-Romance language.

Latin has been one of the strongest influencers of English, through both Latin’s role as the liturgical language of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages and today in the Catholic Church, as well as Latin’s role as the language of the Roman Empire, whose presence can still be felt across the Mediterranean and in Western Europe where it once ruled.

Today many Latin words have been adopted into English, from viaand campusto Latinate English words like canineand feminine. If we were to use purely Germanic-rooted words instead of canineand femininewe might say doglike and womanly, words that don’t have quite the same scientific or proper sound as their Latinate alternatives. For many Latinate words in English, we give them the same old -splural ending that is standard in this language. Yet even that comes originally from Latin, via French. Though with some words like campuseswe tend to tack on the English plural ending, despite the s already being there.

Then there is a whole class of irregular Latinate nouns that have come into English but, for whatever reason, kept their original Latin endings. Words like the originally Greek hippopotamus which, after being adapted by Latin, is as an English plural becomes hippopotami. I’ve noticed that many of these Latin words that kept their Latin forms in English tend in Latin to be either masculine or neuter, and very rarely feminine. It’s not often that you’ll hear someone refer to a group of orchestrasas orchestrae, but more common to hear a group of curriculums referred to as curricula, as is proper in more formal English and in Latin. So, if we stick with these rules then professional baseball is played not in stadiums but in stadia.

These forms have been around for quite some time, but in general they aren’t taught. I only realised they were there after studying Latin and Ancient Greek while writing a master’s thesis about Irish language curricula. For many people the plural has become the singular, so it’s often forgotten that the singular of criteriais criterionand that in very formal, and admittedly almost unused speech the plural of museumis musea. Even my spellcheck didn’t like that last one.

Whether we like it or not, there is a great deal of Latin in English today. We may not necessarily follow all of the Latin patterns and rules that have, over the centuries, been adopted into English, but they’re still there nevertheless. And personally, I like these, they add an extra bit of flavour to my writing.

Do you follow these rules, or do they seem outdated and out of place in English? Is English too complicated and irregular? And for those of you learning English, how do English plurals mirror or differ from those of your language.

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