A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Many English words have Latin roots, but what are the roots of Latin?

February 18, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I've have noticed that every time someone asks a question regarding the origin of a particular word, Cecil always mentions the original Latin word root. Well, where did the original Latin words come from? Was there actually a Latinese guy sitting around thousands of years ago making up crazy words for things so that today we'd have an origin for the word "boogie"? Are Latin words still being created to describe modern things that weren't around during the original Latin period?

Some ancient Latinese guy just making stuff up? No way. There's always a rational story behind every Latin word. For example, "boogie," as you have already guessed, is from Latin. The origin can be found in Bogudis, a shortened form of saltatio Bogudis ("dance of Bogud"), Bogud being an African king who allied himself with Julius Caesar and incidentally introduced Rome to the new musical form known as "iazz." Okay, so maybe I made that one up.

The reason so many etymologies go back to Latin (or Old Latin) and no further is because that's often as far back as we can trace the written record for the word. But Latin did not spring from the sea-foam like Venus. Classical Latin is descended from Old Latin, in which we have a large amount of written material starting in the sixth century before Christ.

Old Latin didn't come from nothing either, but the language it and the other Italic languages descended from (called proto-Italic) was never written down. Linguists have had to reconstruct this language from clues found in Old Latin and the other Italic languages that were once spoken (and written) in Italy, such as Oscan, Umbrian, Sabine, and Faliscan. Linguistic and archaeological clues suggest that speakers of proto-Italic may have first come to the Italian peninsula around the tenth century before Christ.

But proto-Italic didn't come from nowhere either. (Are you sensing a pattern yet?) Proto-Italic is descended from another reconstructed language called proto-Indo-European (PIE), from which the many Indo-European (IE) languages derive, including Sanskrit, Hindi, Hittite, Russian, Greek, English, and of course Latin. Linguists and archaeologists believe that PIE was spoken (but sadly not written) in an area just north of the Black Sea by members of the Kurgan cultures, which flourished in that region from about 4500 BC. The Kurgan cultures continued to thrive until about 2200 BC, but it is estimated that the languages started to differentiate about 3000 BC. The domestication of the horse or the invention of the wheeled ox cart may have triggered the great expansion of the Indo-European languages. 

Proto-Italic, by the way, may not have been the first IE language spoken in the Italian peninsula. The proto-Italian newcomers displaced the earlier Terramare culture, which may have been an IE culture. Linguists have a pretty good idea of what PIE was like, reconstructing it from the known languages that are descended from it. But I'm sure they'd like confirmation. So if you ever build a time machine that can take you back five thousands years, when come back bring--oh, never mind.

Did PIE descended from something else? Nobody knows for sure. Various linguists have attempted to establish that Indo-European and other language families have a common ancestry, but these efforts are controversial. The Nostratic theory, for example, attempts to unite IE with the Uralic language family (including Finnish), Altaic (including Turkish), Afro-Asiatic (including Arabic), and often other families. The relationship of IE to any other family is still greeted with skepticism, but the relationship of Altaic and Uralic to each other is more generally accepted.  Some linguists go even further, suggesting that all human languages share a common origin. The relationships (if they exist at all) are very distant and would be hard to prove or disprove conclusively.

Some dictionaries trace word origins all the way back to the PIE roots. The online American Heritage Dictionary is particularly good for that. For example, you can trace the English "mother," Latin mater, and Greek metera back to the PIE root *-mater. Sometimes the relationships are not so obvious. English "five," Latin quinque and Greek pente, despite their apparent differences, all derive from the PIE root *penkwe. But not all Latin words descended from PIE via the usual route. Just as English has borrowed words from Latin, Latin borrowed many words from other languages.

Many fairly common Latin words were borrowed in ancient times from Greek, which had high prestige in Roman culture. Some of these eventually found their way into English as well: camera ("chamber"), historia ("story"), purpura ("purple"), and gubernare ("to govern") are just a few examples. In the Christian era, even more words were borrowed from Greek, such as ecclesia ("church") and baptizare ("to baptize"). Since Greek is also an IE language, most such borrowings can be traced back to PIE, but not all. For example, the Latin word for the cypress tree, cupressus, was borrowed from the Greek, but the Greek word was a non-IE borrowing from an uncertain source.

It was not only the prestigious Greek that added vocabulary to Latin. For a time after Rome began its ascendancy but before the other Italic languages disappeared completely, Latin borrowed many words from them. Many of these are things associated with the countryside, where the other Italic languages persisted the longest: asinus ("donkey"), caseus ("cheese"), bos ("ox"), and lupus ("wolf"). The -ese ending in English as in "Viennese," "Chinese," (and your "Latinese," I guess) is from Latin -ensis, which may be borrowed from a genitive case ending of another Italic language.

Before Rome began its ascendancy, the Etruscans were their powerful neighbors and sometime rulers. Very little is known about their language, but it almost certainly was not IE. There are many Latin words that are not from IE roots, and the imaginative have often speculated that some of them were borrowed from Etruscan. All such proposed etymologies should be taken with a grain of salt (or cum grano salis, as the Romans would say). Persona ("mask"), amare ("to love"), fenestra ("window"), and autumnus ("autumn") have all been put forward, along with many others. Some believe that even the name of the city of Rome (Roma) is of Etruscan origin.

In its expansion, Latin came in contact with a great many other languages, and borrowed words from some of them. One of the Latin words for horse, caballus, is borrowed from a Celtic language. The Latin word for soap, sapo, is borrowed from a Germanic language. Mappa ("napkin") which is the source of the English word "map" may be of Punic (Carthaginian) origin. In the Christian era, Latin borrowed several religious terms from Hebrew including alleluia ("hallelujah"), seraphin ("seraphim"), and Messias ("Messiah"). Late Latin borrowed several words from Arabic, particularly from mathematics and alchemy, such as cifra ("zero") and elixir. The latter was itself a borrowing from Greek into Arabic.

Are there new Latin words for things that the ancient Romans didn't have? Well, Radio Finland (or in Latin, Radiophonia Finnica Generalis) broadcasts Nuntii Latini ("Latin announcements") in Latin via short-wave radio and by the Tela Totius Terrae (World Wide Web). Exactly why they thought it was a good idea to broadcast the news in Latin is another story, probably having something to do with very long winters and a steady supply of Finlandia vodka. Anyway, I expect they would be lost in trying to discuss current events without words for modern things. This is where your "Latinese guy sitting around making up crazy words" comes in.

His name is Carolus Egger, author of such timeless classics as Omnia dici possunt Latine ("Everything can be said in Latin") and Lexicon nominum virorum et mulierum ("dictionary of the names of men and women"). A few years back he oversaw the compilation of a new dictionary published by the Vatican that Nuntii Latini uses as one of its references. Lexicon recentis Latinitatis ("a dictionary of recent Latin") contains Latin words for all sorts of things that would leave the ancients scratching their heads. Where possible the entries are words that were already part of the language, from Latin writings of the Middle Ages or later. Some concepts didn't already have Latin names, so Egger and crew had to make them up, mostly forming new words from Greek roots or by forming phrases from familiar Latin words. It's not an English-Latin dictionary, but Italian-Latin, so it helps to know a little Italian. (Or a big Italian, as long as he can translate). One of the libraries I patronize had a copy gathering dust for five years before anyone was crazy--er, I mean inspired enough to check it out. Let's see what we can learn from it.

America's pastime is ludus pilae et basium ("game of ball and bases"). Boeing and Cessna make aëronaves. Chuck Yeager famously flew an aëronavis hyperechetica. (My guess is he was trying to get away from a bunch of Latin speaking geeks at the time). Stephen King writes fabulae horrificae ("horrific stories"), some of which get made into horrible pelliculae cinematographicae (films) that may be shown on telehorasis (television). Before settling down to watch, you may want to get yourself some maizae grana tosta (popcorn or "toasted grains of corn"). Starbucks sells a lot of overpriced cafaearia potio coram expressa ("coffee beverage squeezed in front of you," or espresso). Winstons taste good, like a fistula nicotiana should (literally "nicotine tube"). Ford and GM make autocineta (cars) that run on benzinium (gasoline). If you have a telephonium, you probably know that AT&T is a societas telecommunicativa (telecommunications company). You may find that it's generally a bad idea to take a blind date to a pellicula cinematographica obscena (porn flick). She could have you hauled off to the dementium valetudinarium (insane asylum) if she doesn't just mow you down with a polybolum (machine gun).

Some of these new formations are admittedly unwieldy. One of my Latin teachers once made a lame joke about going into a bar and ordering a martinus because he only wanted one (Latin words ending in -i often being plural). We should have it so easy. According to Egger, a martini cocktail is a Martiniana mixtura. Imagine ordering a Martiniana mixtura potione valida Slavica (vodka martini, but literally "Martini mixture with strong Slavic beverage"). The first time might go smoothly enough, but try saying that again after you've had a few. Make mine a vischium (whiskey).

Further reading:

The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages by Mario Pei (1976)

An Introduction to the Indo-European Languages by Philip Baldi (1983)

Lexicon recentis Latinitatis (Volume I 1992, Volume II 1997), Carolus Egger, moderator

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