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Build Your English Vocabulary by Learning Latin Roots

Updated on September 30, 2009

Healthy Latin Roots Grow Large Vocabulary Trees

Though classified as a "dead" language, meaning that it is no longer spoken as a native language, Latin does live on in the words that we use every day in our written and verbal communication.

While there is continual debate regarding the actual percentage of English words that are derived from Latin, it is without question, a substantial amount. In fact, in just the last two sentences, 14 out of 21 of the words having more than one syllable are descended from Latin. Pretty interesting, eh?

I took three years of Latin when I was in college, and I was amazed at how much more extensive my vocabulary became during that time. While it is hard to quantify that, the telling point for me was not having to consult my thesaurus as often while I was writing my term papers. That may sound like a minor issue, but the last thing you want to be doing at 2 am is paging through Roget's yet again. Not that I was ever up doing papers at the last minute, of course. *cough*

In this lens, I will give a brief introduction to the different word parts (prefixes, suffixes and roots) and explain how learning some common Latin derivatives can greatly increase your vocabulary. This is especially important to those studying for college entrance exams (SAT, GRE, MCAT, etc.).

Even if you are not studying for an exam of some sort, it is still useful to expand your language skills and keep your mind actively learning. For others learning English as a second language, familiarity with common Latin roots and affixes can help speed up the process of language acquisition.

Carpe Diem!

Vocab Nugget of the Week

Come back each week to learn a new Latin part and see your vocabulary increase!

Word part: ambi-

Type: Root

Meaning: both, on both sides (around)

Derivative Words: ambidextrous (equally proficient in the use of both the right and left appendages); ambivalent (state of having conflicting feelings toward a person or thing); ambiance (mood or atmosphere, especially that of an environment); ambiguous (having several meanings); ambivalent (unable to make a choice).

The Rise and Decline of Latin

The Latin language began as the language of Latium, a region occupying the central area of Italy that included the city of Rome. As Rome became more powerful in the centuries before the beginning of the Christian era, Latin spread to the outlying areas throughout the Mediterranean and in parts of Europe as they were conquered.

Veni, vidi, vici!

There were two dialects, Classical and Vulgar; Classical Latin was the more formal, mostly written, form used by the politicians, orators and philosophers of their day. In contrast, Vulgar Latin was spoken by the common people. In the 4th century A.D., Pope Damascus gave his secretary, Jerome (later sainted), the task of translating the Bible into Vulgar Latin so that it could be understood by the larger populace that the church was attempting to evangelize. As a result, Vulgar Latin remained the spoken language in the former Roman Empire long after its demise. During the 9th century, Latin evolved into the Romance Languages (such as Italian, French, Catalan, Romanian, Spanish, and Portuguese). The Catholic church continued to use Latin widely until about the 17th century. As time went on, Latin was used less and less. Now, it is only used for formal pronouncements by the Catholic Church.

Latin Vocabulary Parts

There are three different types of language parts to take into consideration when studying Latin vocabulary:

  • Prefixes
  • Suffixes
  • Roots

Prefixes are short letter groups, that are attached at the beginning of a word ("Pre-" is a prefix itself, meaning "before"). Suffixes are similar but are tacked onto the end of a word. Roots are the building blocks of the words.

Examples of Common Latin Roots

Due to space limitations, I have listed some of the more common roots in the table below. In the section below this one, I have provided links to more extensive lists of Latin derivative parts.






audible, auditorium



benefit, benign



cogitate, cognizant



dictate, predict


lead, make

deduce, conduct



facilitate, facile


give birth

genesis, generate



jury, justice



logic, catalog



lucid, translucent



manual, manipulate



demand, remand



minimum, dimunitive



missile, transmit



omniscent, omnivorous



pedal, impede



export, transport


quiet, rest

acquit, tranquil



script, transcribe



sentient, sensitive



inspect, spectacle



terrain, terrarium



evacuate, vacuous



visible, vision

Tell me about your Latin experience...

Have you ever studied Latin?

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Popular Latin Sayings

A number of Latin quotations have been preserved and used over the years. I have listed a few of my favorites below.

Famous Quotations:

"Veni, vidi, vici" - Julius Caesar

I came, I saw, I conquered

"Fortes fortuna adiuvat" - Terence

Fortune favors the bold

"In hoc signo vinces."

Under this sign (the cross of God) thou shalt conquer

"Sit mens sana in corpore sano" - Juvenal

A healthy mind in a healthy body

"Et tu, Brute" - Caesar as portrayed in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar

And you, Brutus

"Errare humanum est" - Seneca the Younger

To err is human.

"Cogito ergo sum" - Descartes

I think therefore I am.

"Optimum est pati quod emendare non possis." - Seneca

It is best to endure what you cannot change.

"Carpe Diem!" - Horace

Seize the day!

There are some Latin phrases that have stayed in common use. I have listed some of my favorites below.


"Caveat emptor"

Let the buyer beware.

"Ante bellum"

Before the war

"Terra firma"

Solid ground

"Habeas corpus"

You shall have the body

"Anno Domini" or "A.D."

In the year of the Lord

"In flagrante delicto"

Caught in the very act of committing a transgression

"Quid pro quo"

Something for something (this for that)

"Opus Dei"

The work of God

Latin Educational Materials at Amazon

Wheelock's Latin, 6th Revised Edition
Wheelock's Latin, 6th Revised Edition

This is the seminal Latin text and has been for decades.

Minimus Pupil's Book: Starting out in Latin
Minimus Pupil's Book: Starting out in Latin

This is a wonderful series of books geared toward younger Latin learners. Start 'em young!


Should Latin Be Brought Back to the Schools?

Do you think Latin should be added to the school curriculum?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love this educational lens. I wish I had learned Latin at school as it would have come in very useful later in my studies.This leans very useful for my future studies

    • profile image

      Thamisgith 5 years ago

      I wish that I had studied Latin at school. When I learned Portuguese a few years ago, I was amazed at how many words are common (albeit with different spellings and pronunciations quite often) across the Latinate languages. It was like getting 4 languages for the price of one!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      Love this educational lens. I wish I had learned Latin at school as it would have come in very useful later in my studies. ~*~* Angel Blessed *~*~

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 8 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      I didn't enjoy high school Latin, but I do think that it was beneficial for later studies, especially advanced tests like the MAT (Miller Analogies Test).

    • JoyfulPamela2 profile image

      JoyfulPamela2 8 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      I think learning the roots are vital in understanding more advanced vocabulary. SAT scores and more will be improved with Latin knowledge. Thanks for the great lens! I'll be back to learn more!Pamela :)

    • pkmcruk profile image

      pkmcr 8 years ago from Cheshire UK

      This really is a terrific lens and takes me back to my days of learning latin at school. Great information and blessed by a Squid Angel

    • mariaamoroso profile image

      irenemaria 8 years ago from Sweden

      I have always been interested in similarities in languages. I am Swedish and in our language we have many words coming from the latin!

    • profile image

      GrowWear 8 years ago

      Very interesting. I love finding out word origins and such. This lens about Latin Roots is a great idea. Hope to see more or your work like this. :)

    • profile image

      poutine 8 years ago

      What a smart lens.I'm going to follow a few of the links mentionnedand practice a bit.Poutine

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Thanks for the quick Latin overview! "English From the Roots Up" is another great little curriculum for learning the key to English vocabulary words. It's easy to work with and you can even buy a CD which will give you the correct pronunciation for the Latin/Greek root. Both my kids have used this curriculum in school and they've enjoyed it while also learning one or two things in the process.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 8 years ago from USA

      This is terrific!