Latin lover

As a high school freshman, Adan Juarez earned a perfect score on the National Latin Exam.

The Orange County Register profile implies that Latin is closer to English than Spanish, which is Adan’s first language. Adan’s teacher claims 70 percent of English words are derived from Latin, which seems high. English is a Germanic language.

I’ll have to ask Dr. Weevil, who’s a Latin teacher, about that.

My niece was a lackluster student until ninth grade, when she started acing Latin. She decided it was fun to do well and started working hard and earning A’s in her other classes. She moves into her freshman dorm at Occidental tomorrow.

About Joanne


  1. wahoofive says:

    A lot of English vocabulary is derived from French, which in turn is derived from Latin, so maybe this teacher is counting that as “derived from Latin.”

  2. John Thacker says:

    Seventy percent of English words overall may be derived from Latin (especially ultimately, through French and other languages), but not 70 percent of the words used in any typical vocabulary. By usage, the Germanic words dominate, consisting of most of the short, simple, powerful words with broad everyday meaning. Latinate words are overwhelmingly longer, precise, more educated, and are used to illustrate specific shades or aspect of meaning.

    There’s an interesting parallel with Japanese. The Japanese language existed before they acquired the Chinese writing system (through Koreans), and later modified it. Short, common, everyday words are of native Japanese origin, and if they use Chinese characters they do so for meaning alone. Compound words with multiple Chinese characters use Chinese-derived pronunciation of those characters, and many are borrowed straight from Chinese.

  3. Charles R. Williams says:

    English is Germanic in its structure while a large part of its high-level vocabulary is ultimately of Latin origin. But there is no doubt that someone who is fluent in Spanish is at a big advantage in learning Latin over someone who is not fluent in any Romance language. Consider the verb. The uses of the subjunctive in Spanish is much closer to Latin. So is the structure of the tenses. There are clear parallels in the conjugation of verbs. Canto, cantas, cantat, cantamus, cantatis, cantant in Latin vs. canto, cantas, canta, cantamos,cantais, cantan. Also, the genders in Spanish and Latin line up. The Spanish speaker knows that manus is feminine because mano is feminine. The English speaker must learn this as an apparent exception. It goes on and on.

  4. Thanks for the plug. By the way, JJ, I’ve changed jobs and am now working down the hall from our mutual acquaintance B.

    Anyway, whether 70% of English vocabulary is Latin depends on how you define vocabulary. With the narrowest definition, it’s certainly false: the commonest 100 or 1000 English words are mostly Germanic. With the widest definition, it’s also probably false: unabridged dictionaries like the OED include lots of medical and scientific terms with Greek etymologies that are not part of the active vocabulary of anyone except people working in a particular field. They also include lots of words that are occasionally used in English but aren’t really English words as such: ‘pomme de terre’, ‘tohu bohu’, ‘sanjak’, lots of Scrabble words. How widely a word has to be used before you call it English is a good question: I would assume that ‘kindergarten’ and ‘cherubim’, despite their obvious German and Hebrew origins and spelling respectively, are now English words, but the other three examples are highly arguable.

    Somewhere in between, if you look at the 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 words (I’m just guessing on the number) that most college graduates would know even if they’ve never studied the particular fields in which they are used (‘pneumonia’ yes, ‘pneumonoconiosis’ no), they may well be 70% Latin, especially if you count the ones that came from Latin into English via French. (Some etymologies are really complicated: as I recall, ‘apricot’ started out in Latin and went through Greek, Arabic, Portuguese, Latin again, and maybe a couple of other languages — not necessarily in that order — before it got to English.)

    As for Spanish, the vocabulary is something like 90% Latin. There are a few Germanic words from the Vandal period (I think ‘guerra’ = “war” is related the first half of Wehrmacht). And there are quite a few Arabic borrowings. But basically Spanish is a daughter-language of Latin with some vocabulary from other languages.

  5. Getting a perfect score on the National Latin Exam is not really all that big a deal. There are only 40 questions, all multiple choice, with four choices each and no penalty for guessing. Three of my 25 Latin students last year — all 7th and 8th graders — got perfect scores. It didn’t occur to us to call the newspaper. Though none of our high schoolers got a perfect score, all but one of them won a gold (summa cum laude) or silver (maxima cum laude) medal, and that one only missed by one point and got a magna cum laude. The high school questions are much harder, so 36 or 37 out of 40 is enough for a gold medal, and 34 or 35 for a silver.

  6. John Thacker says:

    Anyway, whether 70% of English vocabulary is Latin depends on how you define vocabulary.

    It also depends on whether you average with each word being weighted as 1, or each word weighted according to how common it appears. I suspect that there is no definition weighted by actual frequency of use under which Latinate words are 70% (which is what I meant to say originally), but I could be wrong.

  7. Deirdre Mundy says:

    How about a 70% frequency among people who’ve recently studied too much Latin and have thus corrupted their ability to speak coherent English?

    (At one point in college I had a very animated discussion with a friend about “Cameleopards” and couldn’t fathom why they had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA that such a creature existed… I mean, come on! Hadn’t they ever been to a zoo? Eventually a third friend intervened and had to remind me that, in general, English speakers call the creature a “Giraffe.” =) )

  8. Even worse, it’s not a ‘cameleopard’ (camel + leopard with one L squeezed out) it’s a ‘camelopard’ (camel + linking O + pard). As I recall, leopard itself is a compound word: leo + pard.

  9. English has the largest vocabulary of all languages spoken today. We use only a small percentage of that vocabulary, and the words we use are Basic English vocabulary.

    I downloaded Ogden’s Basic English Vocabulary list and have gone through the As and Bs (it’s slow and tedious, and I have no plans to hurry this — I’m using an etymological dictionary, even on words whose etymology seems obvious, because sometimes, the obvious is incorrect — for example, “brown” looks like it is derived from Norman French, but it is not). Out of the 110 words (As and Bs), 62, 56.36%, are of Anglo-Saxon (native Old English) origin. 36, or 32.73% are of Norman French origin, and the remainder are either unknown (“bad”), onomatopoeic (“baby”), or of Old Norse, Latin, or Greek origin.

    It is (to say the least) inaccurate to label loans from Norman French as Latin. For one thing, French itself contains a substantial number of Germanic words, since the peoples were Germanic. More importantly, the Normans weren’t French. They were Vikings. Norman French was distinct from mainland Old French in that it retained a large number of Old Norse words. A Latin loan is a word that came directly from Latin. If you count a word from French, say, as a Latin loan because it in turn descended from a Latin word, then you have to count Norman words that descended from Old Norse as Old Norse, and why stop there? Why not just label nearly all English vocabulary as Proto-Indo-European?

    Latin loans are primarily ecclesiastical or academic words. English has very few Latin loans that do not fall into either of the above two categories, since Latin was a dead language, used only as the scholarly language of Europe. I seriously doubt that even including the whole corpus of English words would one come up with 70% Latin loans. I seriously doubt one would come up with half that.

    More as I slosh through the etymologies of the vocabulary list.

  10. Yes, The Spanish speaker knows that manus is feminine because mano is feminine. The English speaker must learn this as an apparent exception. It goes on and on.

  11. The real question here is how many of the loan words still resemble their Latin origins sufficiently both in sound or spelling and in meaning to help in learning them. I’m pretty sure that even Spanish and Italian have evolved sufficiently that a person speaking classic Latin would not be able to strike up a conversation in Madrid or Rome, but many of the written words would be recognizable.

    Loan words at a second remove, such as Latin words adopted into French and then from French into English are going to be more distorted. I don’t know much Latin or French, but I doubt that I could even guess the French form just from knowing the modern English word, and even if I did manage to find the original Latin word, that still leaves me clueless as to how the word would inflect according to how it was used in a sentence. OTOH, I (at least) find it much easier to memorize things when I can fit them into a larger pattern as I learn them, and Latin –> French –> English could provide such a pattern and make the sheer vocabulary memorization task easier. (It worked that way when I was learning German, although the relationship between the languages is closer.) Of course, Spanish speakers begin one step closer to Latin than English speakers do.

  12. Most of you are missing the main point: Vocabulary is one thing (clearly, lots of our words come from Latin (like “amorous”) – but lots come from Greek (like “emphysema” (but they pronounce it funny)), but what really makes a language is its grammar. Latin (to belabor the obvious) is an inflected language, rather like Spanish, while English is not. Latin’s conjugations and declensions make a formidble barrier to speakers of a simple language like English.

    I took Latin in a Jesuit high school, but was barely able to come up with a proper use of the ablative absolute.

    On all else, I defer to Dr Weevil (whom I have not read in far too long).

    I don’t want to diminish Mr Juarez’ achievement, but 40 multiple-choice questions do not a Latin scholar make. Why, back at Oxford, we had to translate a pages of Roger Bacon into Latin. And if you didn’t get it right, the don would be very cross with you indeed.

    And in my Jesuit high school, one of the punishments for uncivil behavior was to memorize 1 (or more, depending on the severity) pages of Latin.

    I believe that a reasonable related thread would be the sudden surfacing of invented languages Google for “Ale li pona”.

  13. Latin was certainly not a dead language when the Romans conquered Britain and held it for, lo, those nearly 300 years.