English Language Derivatives From Latin & Greek

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

This lesson will introduce you to how the knowledge of Latin and Greek roots, suffixes, and prefixes can be used to understanding the meaning of words in the English language of today that are derived from Latin and Greek.

English Language Origins

English is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family…so why is it so strongly influenced by Latin and Greek? Even though the beginnings of the English language were brought to England as early as the 5th century CE by people from Denmark and Germany, the language did not fully resemble what we speak today. When the Normans, a Catholic French population, invaded the British Isles in 1066, they brought with them their two languages: Latin and French. Because they were the ruling group for a long time after the invasion, English became the language of the weak, effectively forcing English speakers to adopt Latin and French words into their language so they would fit in. As the Renaissance began, about 500 years later, even more Latin words, as well as Greek ones, were added to make English a more ''educated'' language because of the Renaissance's emphasis on the classics.

Part of the Bayeux Tapestry, a Norman artwork that depicts the conquest of the British Isles--notice the Latin lettering in the image
Part of the Bayeux Tapestry, a Norman artwork that depicts the conquest of the British Isles

Because of this unique history, English speakers today--or even people trying to learn English--can benefit from understanding some of the derivatives, or parts of a word taken from other languages, like Latin and Greek. Since there are over a million words in the English language, it is impossible to memorize them all. However, understanding some basic components of words and common ones that are derivatives of the classical languages can help you determine their meaning.

In many ways, a word is just like a cake, made up of different ingredients. You can figure out what a word means by looking at its three parts. The root, or the most basic form of the word that still has meaning, is what makes up the base of the word. Frequently something will be attached the beginning of a word to add meaning, which is called a prefix. Suffixes are similar to prefixes, but instead come at the end of the word. For example, if you study the word ''microbiology,'' you can see it is composed of these three parts, all of Greek origin: a prefix, ''micro-'' (meaning ''small''); a root, ''bio'' (meaning ''life''); and a suffix, ''logy'' (meaning ''study of''). Understanding these parts can help you determine that microbiology is the ''study of small life forms.'' This lesson will introduce some common English derivatives of all these parts from both Latin and Greek to help you gain a better understanding of how to figure out a word's meaning.

Derivatives from Latin

Even though Latin is a ''dead'' language, meaning no one speaks it anymore, it is very important for understanding many English words. A common root derivative from Latin is ''liber,'' which means ''free.'' This is used in many words in the United States because of the emphasis on freedom, such as the Liberty Bell which would mean something like the ''bell of freedom.'' Other common roots from Latin are ''omni'' which means ''all'' (so something being ''omnipresent'' means it is everywhere) and ''proto,'' meaning ''first'' (so a ''prototype'' would be the ''first type/model'').

Even more important than the roots from Latin are the prefixes and suffixes. These are added to many English words, so understanding their meaning is incredibly useful. ''Non-'' is a common prefix that means ''not'' or negates a root and ''inter-'' is added to many words to explain something is ''between'' or ''among.'' You are probably currently using something with this Latin terminology: the internet. This word uses the prefix ''inter'' to add to the root ''net'' which is short for ''network''--so the internet is something happening ''between/among a network.'' Some common suffixes are ''-able'' which means ''capable of'' and ''-ation'' which explains something about the action of the word.

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