English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
CLASSICAL ELEMENT

"For vch gresse mot grow of graynes dede,
No whette were elles to wones wonne."1

This thought of the fourteenth-century poet of the Pearl applies with peculiar fitness to the case of modern European languages. What would have been the product of growth in the languages of northern Europe if they had each been entirely free from external influence, can never be certainly known. The fact is that one and all of them have been subjected to the influence of the earlier cultivated languages of southern Europe. Unlike plants which have found bare sustenance in an unimproved soil, they have, each and all of them, reached down into the cultivated and enriched soil of languages created by an earlier civilization. The earlier languages of Greece and Rome, languages in which the earlier culture finds expression, have provided an organized soil from which they have drawn.

The indebtedness to the classical languages is particularly great in the case of English. But the other cultivated languages have all drawn heavily from the same source. An examination of dictionaries of German or Dutch or Danish will discover few pages without words of classical derivation, and on many pages the number of classical derivatives will be found surprising. Long before the first English came to Britain, the various Teutonic peoples of northern Europe had come into contact with Roman civilization and had absorbed Roman words in their speech.

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1
For each herb must grow from grains that are dead; otherwise no wheat would be garnered for storage.

-106-

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