Vocabulary Builder
A Very Brief History of English
Why would knowledge of French, German, or Spanish help with English vocabulary? Why should you bother memorizing Greek and Latin roots, suffixes, and prefixes? The answers to these questions lie in the development of the English language.
Old English broke off from a precursor to German called Germanic sometime in the fifth century. At this point, English was just one of many Germanic languages. However, the Latin-speaking Romans had maintained an outpost in England since the first century, so some Latinate words had trickled down into Old English. Over the next few centuries, English gained some more Germanic influence from Viking invasions in the eighth century. But the key event in Old English—the terminal event, actually—was the Norman invasion in 1066.
The Normans spoke an early version of French, a Romance language that had split off from Latin centuries before. Norman French stripped English of much of its Germanic roots, changing grammar forever and making English the semi-Romance language it is today. For our purposes, the crucial development was that a Latin-by-way-of-early-French vocabulary started to mix in with the older Germanic words. Today English contains many synonym pairs that stem from this mixture:
Germanic Romance
brotherhood fraternity
catlike feline
ask request
sheep mutton
ax hatchet
Middle English began in the twelfth century and continued on into the fifteenth century. During this period the French influence grew, carrying its Latinate vocabulary throughout English society as Normans and Anglo-Saxons intermarried. Modern English began in the sixteenth century and continues on to this day, with Greek and Latin having a significant and direct impact on vocabulary through the rise of science and scientific terminology. English-speakers have long looked to the classical languages when creating neologisms—or new words. Neologism itself is a perfect example: neo means “new”; logos means “word.”
So, the recipe for English is to:
  • Take one part Germanic
  • Add one part Romance
  • Season liberally with Greek and Latin
Any knowledge of modern-day French, Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese will give you a shot at many of the more complex Latinate English words. Of course, false friends dog every language-learner—sometimes identical-looking words in, say, French and English mean different things. For example, you might assume the French word eventuel translates as eventual in English, but it actually means possible or potential. However, the general point still holds: knowledge of Romance languages can help you decipher many difficult English words. If you’ve studied German, that may be less helpful for vocabulary but not useless. Be on the lookout for similarities. Here are a few examples.
Foreign Language English Word
Latin referendum, formula, stimulus
Greek archetype, hubris, metaphor, sarcasm
French bandage, caprice, artisan, picturesque
German kindergarten, leitmotif, zeitgeist
Spanish armada, cargo, mosquito, cigar
Portuguese albino, caste, molasses, marmalade
Italian cupola, extravaganza, fiasco, graffiti, imbroglio
There are also many “near cognates” that have similar but not identical meaning and form. Words are cognates if they derive from a common ancestral language. These, too, can help.
Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes are powerful methods for expanding vocabulary. As with neologism, many fancy, highfalutin words are no more than Greek and Latin word parts glued together. Given the emphasis on the highfalutin’ on the SAT, you’d do well to memorize the most common word parts. We list them for you later on in this book.
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