Is it correct that half percentage of English vocabulary is derived from Latin vocabulary and the other half from Greek? I am reading Marriam Webster Vocabulary Builder, and Word Power Made Easy, and feel that some understanding of Latin and Greek may help me study the two books.

I have found some books in Latin but mostly in its grammar. I have also asked about way to build Latin vocabulary on Latin stacked change site.

What books are recommended for Greek vocabulary and maybe also grammar, particularly for understanding and expanding English vocabulary?

Are the ancient Greek more relevant than modern Greek?


  • Just learn the suffixes, prefixes and roots. From Latin and Greek. Forget grammar for this.
    – Lambie
    Mar 13 at 14:09

6 Answers 6


No, far less of our vocabulary comes from Greek than from Latin. Much more of it comes from various Germanic sources (inherited from Anglo-Saxon, borrowed from Old Norse, etc).

Most of the Latinate words in English came to us via Norman French, which (as a Romance language) is descended from Latin. A smaller number are modern coinages and technical terms. Greek is also used in these coinages and technical terms, but never had the influence on English that Norman French did.

For these technical terms, though, the origin is generally Ancient Greek rather than Modern. Modern Greek has had an even smaller impact on English, mostly limited to cultural terms like spanakopita (a type of pie). The reason for this is geographic: Greece and England are quite far apart, and while Ancient Greek was once a standard part of a good education across Europe, Modern Greek never was.

  • Thanks. What books are recommended for (1) various Germanic sources (inherited from Anglo-Saxon, borrowed from Old Norse, etc), (2) Latin vocabulary and grammar, and (3) Greek vocabulary and maybe also grammar,?particularly for understanding and expanding English vocabulary?
    – Tim
    Mar 12 at 8:00
  • Ancient Greek terms remain pretty much the same in Modern Greek. It is the declensions that change. Not the suffixes, prefixes and roots.
    – Lambie
    Mar 12 at 15:08
  • The best Greek dictionary is the Middle Liddell Greek-English Lexicon, by Liddell and Scott. It's over a century old, but the language is the same and the dictionary is small enough to hold in one hand. Any paperback Latin dictionary is good enough, provided it marks long vowels (v. important) and verb principal parts and/or roots. If you want a Latin grammar the best Latin grammar in English (Hale and Buck) is online. Here are some class handouts to go with them. Mar 12 at 17:20

You don't need to "learn the languages" per se. That is, you do not need to learn how to create utterances in Ancient Greek or in Latin as that would call for learning all the declensions in those languages which are not relevant to the semantic impact they have on/in English on nouns or verbs.

What you do need to learn are the suffixes and prefixes coming from both and many roots of words to quickly help you with vocabulary in English.

All these examples below come from Reading Rockets , which has a pretty comprehensive view of all these roots, suffixes and prefixes encountered in English.

Many English words are formed by taking basic words and adding combinations of prefixes and suffixes to them. A basic word to which affixes (prefixes and suffixes) are added is called a root word because it forms the basis of a new word. The root word is also a word in its own right. For example, the word lovely consists of the word love and the suffix -ly.

In contrast, a root is the basis of a new word, but it does not typically form a stand-alone word on its own. For example, the word reject is made up of the prefix re- and the Latin root ject, which is not a stand-alone word.

For example, see the chart: Common Latin Roots
Latin Root Definition Examples
ambi both ambiguous, ambidextrous
aqua water aquarium, aquamarine
aud to hear audience, audition
bene good benefactor, benevolent
cent one hundred century, percent
circum around circumference, circumstance

Common Greek Roots Greek Root Definition Examples
anthropo man; human; humanity anthropologist, philanthropy
auto self autobiography, automobile
bio life biology, biography
chron time chronological, chronic
dyna power dynamic, dynamite

Some prefixes are from Latin and others from Greek:

For example:

Prefix Meaning Origin English Examples
a-, an- not, without, (having) no GREEK, anemia, atheist, atypical
ab-, a-, abs- away from LATIN, abnormal, absent, abstain, aversion
aer- air, atmosphere GREEK, aeronautics, aerosol
ambi- both, on both sides of LATIN, ambivalent, ambidextrous
ant-, anti- against, opposed to, preventive GREEK antagonist, antibiotic, antonym
audi- hearing, listening, sound LATIN, audible, auditorium, auditory

The full list can be consulted here: Greek and Latin Prefixes to word_Excel Institute

Please note: Ancient or Modern Greek is irrelevant as most of the terms are the same in both. One example is the word for woman: γυνή, which is the basis for the word gynecology in English. And -λογία (-logía) is where logy comes from as in biology, philology etc. etc. etc. [Wikipedia]

If you click through the links provided in this answer, you will see the suffixes, prefixes and roots from Greek and Latin you need to help improve your vocabulary in English.

  1. Don't bother with the grammar. But yes, lots of word roots come from Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek - especially in some of the longer, multi-syllabic words.

  2. In school I took a short class on learning Latin and Greek roots that help in understanding those words. So while *I* like the idea of learning the Latin and Greek languages themselves, if you search for "latin greek roots build english vocabulary" you should find lots of resources to help you achieve your stated goal more directly.

  • Not just roots; all the suffixes and prefixes. I have provided two links for roots and the prefixes/suffixes.
    – Lambie
    Mar 13 at 13:16

It's certainly interesting to know a little about languages that have influenced English, but it isn't necessarily helpful, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, once a word or phrase has entered English from another language it doesn't necessarily follow the grammar, spelling, or any other rules of the original language. If any rules are kept, they may not be consistent - for example, the Latin suffixes to denote gender are used in only a few English words (eg 'testator' and 'testatrix') while most either use a more familiar Anglicised suffix or not at all. Further, words borrowed from other languages may not even retain their meaning! For example, a French visitor once asked me why we had 'cul-de-sac' on some of our road signs in England. This was not at all apparent to them, because the loan phrase has not retained its meaning.

Secondly, when it comes to learning other languages to help with English, where would one stop learning? Well over 300 languages are on record in the Oxford English Dictionary as direct sources of present-day English vocabulary.

A computerised survey of about 80,000 words in the OED estimated the origin of English words to be as follows:

French: 28.30%
Latin: 28.24%
Germanic languages: 25%
Greek: 5.32%
No etymology given: 4.04%
Derived from proper names: 3.28%
All other languages: less than 1%

Based purely on that, the answer to your question as to whether English is 50% Latin and 50% Greek would be no.

  • Thanks. Since French is a descendant of Latin and therefore strongly influenced (more than 50% of French vocabulary?), do French's 28.30% influence on English and Latin's 28.24% overlap? What amount in French's 28.30% influence on English comes from Latin's 28.24%?
    – Tim
    May 3 at 8:23

When I started college, lo these many years ago, I of course had to fulfil a language requirement. I had taken Spanish in high school, but didn't want to continue. Looking at the course descriptions, I saw that modern languages required 5 hours per week of lecture, plus 2 hours of classroom instruction, plus spending time in the language lab, working on pronunciation and making tapes (yes, tapes! That's how long ago this was.)

Latin, on the other hand, not being a spoken language, required only 4 hours of lecture time per week, and done. I thought, "Sweet!" I could fulfil the requirement so much easier, and have that much more time for other academic pursuits, like beer.

But the joke was kind of on me. Knowing some Latin (and I also took a semester of ancient Greek along the way,) has always allowed me to get the gist of Romance language words from their roots, understand English so much better by seeing the Latin and Greek in it, and acquire an historical sense of language change and relationships. It turned me into an armchair linguist. And in the last few years I've had some exposure to Sanskrit, and seen how it weaves through Greek, Latin, English, and so many other languages to an amazing extent.

(btw, this was at a university which a few years ago dropped the requirement for Classics majors to learn Greek and/or Latin. I wonder if my being shocked at this makes me old and out of touch.)


Is it correct that half percentage of English vocabulary is derived from Latin vocabulary and the other half from Greek?

Depending on how you measure the halfs, it might almost seem like it. One account looks at usage frequencies, which depends on the profiency and the type of text.

In general, Words come from many different sources, so it will be helpful to have a general understanding of history and linguistic theory. So I'm looking at anecdotal evidence from all sorts of places, which is why I have heard of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWorter, but haven't actually read it, though I do recommend the podcast, Lexicon Valley.

What books are recommended for Greek vocabulary and maybe also grammar, particularly for understanding and expanding English vocabulary?

Latina non legitur.

There are many eclectic lexicons, as it were, like Word Origins and how we know them (Anatoli Liberman) or the American Heritage Dictionary (with a notable Semitic appendix) which skirt the issue.

Latin Grammar used to be elementary in English Education (cf. Glamorous Grammar, History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud), so I won't say that it is not important.

For example, to know how graffiti derives from grafe "stylus" and sculpture from scalpo is not immediately answered by an academic dictionary like the TLFi (Tresor de la langue Francais) and FEW (Französische Etymologisches Wörterbuch). For Latin and Greek, Ernout and Meillet and respectively Chantrain are still widely cited. LSJ.gr doesn't have them but is a good first address. And the list could go on.

However, to get a better grasp of English, an introduction to the Germanic grammar will confer the same basic ideas about morphology and syntax. See eg. The Development of Old English (Donald Ringe and Ann Taylor), or the open access introduction to Fulk's Grammar of Germanic.

See also: English Vocabulary Elements A Course in the Structure of English Words (William R. Leben, Brett Kessler, and Keith Denning; oup)

  • Germanic grammar? The question was about vocabulary, not grammar.
    – Lambie
    Mar 13 at 13:17
  • They mentioned grammar in the question Vocabulary tends to be composed grammatically. Functional words like the, 's, was, about, not (to draw from your comment) are difficult to explain without it. On the other hand, the historical method of literal interpretation would limit more complicated problems, leading to ridiculous results, I think you agree (as for banca rotta, bankruptcy, to the exclusion of the originally (?) Germanic context of bank)
    – vectory
    Mar 13 at 16:32
  • Function words are not generally associated with "increasing one's vocabulary". Greek and Latin roots, affixes and prefixes are. Obviously, one has to have actually taught English to answer this question.
    – Lambie
    Mar 14 at 13:59

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