In particular, I'm curious about the phenomenon where a language creates most new, modern words using a dead ancient language, rather than its existing, living original word roots.

One example is Japanese, which created most words using classical Chinese instead of native Japanese word roots during the Meiji Restoration (and English since the end of WWII).

Another example is modern English. Yes, of course English could've created most new words with the original English roots in theory. But people just don't do it in practice. Why? A simple explanation is that it's just a tradition. A convention. A habit.

But this is actually begging the question. The question remains: why do people stick to this tradition, when the Roman Empire fell long ago, when it was just a dead ancient language, and when it was no longer the dominant academic langauge from the 18th century on?

Now it isn't even a minor academic langauge. Most scholars don't write in it any more. BUT English is STILL deriving NEW, modern words from it today.

Somehow, people just find it more "suitable", more "appropriate" to continue to express new, modern things using Latin words.

So my question is:

Could we start creating new words using old English roots again? Could we stop borrowing from Latin from now on?

By "could" I do not mean its capability in theory, but whether it's feasible, workable and/or possible in reality.

Since modern English is still creating new words TWO CENTURIES after Latin ceased to be the academic langauge, can I safely assume that without major social change, it will continue to do so over the next two centuries? Or even 1000 years later?

1 Answer 1


As I'm sure you know, there are many ways to create neologisms. (Here are a few I summarized in a student paper as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed undergrad.) It would be fair to speculate that borrowings using Latin roots are far outnumbered by some of the other means active today.

The number of people with direct access to Latin has certainly declined over the last century. It is far from a given that a given person's higher education includes Latin. Moreover, the sort of people who do speak it are not often the movers and shakers in terms of neologisms (new words tend to come from popular, not esoteric, groups of people). Therefore, the chances are low of widespread neologisms entering English based on a direct firsthand borrowing from Latin.

But there are many Latin roots that have essentially become English roots. That a morpheme can be traced to a Latin root is not a reason to say that new words formed using it are "using Latin". Take the relatively recent word metrosexual. The OED and etymonline.com agree that "metro" is from "metropolitan", a word that English has possessed for at least 500 years, and "sexual" is so ubiquitous in English that no one would say we had to look to Latin to use it in a neologism. Therefore, we can describe this as mere derivation. English is merely "borrowing" from English.

If that's what you're referring to, then yes, I predict that those "Latin" roots will continue to be productive for a long, long time. Even if we're more likely to form new words by other means.

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