French is a daughter of Latin, so it's safe to say its vocabulary is inherited from Latin. Or is it? Basic vocabulary items such chien, chat, eau, feu can be considered as inherited as they are, well, basic, and also have undergone dramatic changes regarding forms and pronunciations. Some items are obviously (or are they?) borrowed directly from Latin, such as anus, cactus, etc. as they never underwent any significant modifications. Some items such as impératrice, in-, Amérique appear to be kind of middle ground, as they were introduced more recently and underwent only minor nativization (compare empereur, en- which underwent more notable changes).

So my question is: What are the criteria for the "inheritedness" of a word derived from Latin? In other words, how can we determine if a word is inherited from Latin, or just a mere borrowing from Latin?

  • Pour Amérique, c'est raté: ça vient du prénom d'Amerigo Vespucci, variante italienne du prénom d'origine germanique: Aymeric.
    – mouviciel
    Dec 1, 2020 at 14:18

5 Answers 5


The criterion is continuity. In the course of the historical development from Latin to modern French, was the word always present? Then it is considered inherited.

Was it at some point not present, then introduced from a language that was, at the time, not the same language as (whatever phase) French (was in)? Then there was discontinuity, and the word is considered to have been borrowed at that time from that other language.

  • Do you have any sources that suggest the date of attestation of the so-called inherited words? Apparently you suggest that time is the decisive criterion, but I can't find any sources that tell me when the words are attested. And even then, since Latin is the mother of French, it's not always clear-cut if there was any discontinuity at all. The only cases where discontinuity is obvious to me is where words ultimately derived from Latin were indirectly borrowed from another daughter language (Spanish or Italian for example). Dec 6, 2016 at 1:16
  • 1
    @Vun-HughVaw: You're right: the limits are ultimately often not known—and, what is more, often not clear. In those cases, we cannot tell whether a certain word is inherited or borrowed. Many subtle cases also depend on one's definition of the beginning and the end of a language. Are Old French and Modern French one language, if one borrows a word now that was never used since Old French? The definition of "one language" is not always clear. So it is also sometimes simply a choice. In language, there is often ultimately no final truth.
    – Cerberus
    Jan 18, 2017 at 1:51

Pretty simple: is there the same word in Latin ?

  • Yes ? -> It's borrowed from Latin.

  • No ? -> It's not.

If it's not borrowed from Latin it can still have a Latin etymology (like in "empereur", which is not a latin word)

  • 3
    In this case maybe you should rephrase your question, the point is not very clear. Dec 5, 2016 at 12:47

I don't think the "middle ground" words are that different from inherited words. Just because they went through less change doesn't mean they were imported later, or that they are "less inherited and more borrowed".

Apart from that, it's fairly easy to know if a word is borrowed or inherited. Is it originally a scientific word ? Biology, psychology, mathematics ? If so, it's borrowed. It can also extend to literature or philosophy.

Anus is a medical term. Like fémur, tibia, it's directly Latin.

Cactus is Botany vocabulary. We didn't have another word than the Latin one so we used it.

If you have other example that don't fit in this tell me, I'll try to expand the "rule", but it should cover most of it.

  • So you think merely "being scientific" is the decisive criterion? I don't know, but that sounds a little far-fetched. Dec 6, 2016 at 1:09
  • Really ? Why ? They're words that were taken directly from Latin, fairly recently so they didn't change. It covers at least the majority of the borrowed Latin words I can think of. It makes perfect sense, as anytime you need to name something that doesn't already have a word you use Latin. Again, I'd appreciate if you gave me counter-examples. The main other thing would be Latin expression and proverbs, like "status quo", "alea jecta est" or "dura lex sed lex", but I don't need any explanation for that, it's basically quoting Latin. Dec 6, 2016 at 9:09
  • You can visit this for Latin locutions. Anything else I can think of comes from broadly scientific background. Dec 6, 2016 at 9:11
  • here are some words that are not of scientific background : fac simile, Alinea, nota bene, (writing), alibi (justice), amen, mea culpa (religion), bis, bravo (spectacles),ultimatum, veto (politics), quiproquo, idem, and of course, et cetera
    – radouxju
    Nov 29, 2020 at 20:53

I mean, the main criteria are the sound changes from Latin to French. (This is a little circular, since examining the native vocabulary is also how we deduce these sound changes, but it's not fallaciously circular). A word like "feu" < Latin focus shows characteristic French sound changes such as the loss of unstressed vowels, the vocalization and ultimate loss of intervocalic single /k/, and the change of "o" to "eu".

  • Like I said, even newly introduced terms (from Greek or Latin) for example, can still undergo minor nativization (Homere, Thesee, etc.) Sound changes are an important factor, but don't seem to be a decisive one. If they were, there should also be criteria to determine if they're "dramatic" or not. Dec 6, 2016 at 1:07

A word can be the result of the direct evolution of a preexisting word in the same language as its pronunciation and spelling rule evolves too or can be picked as is or adapted from a foreign language at some time.

The first kind is what you describe as inherited, the second form is what you describe as borrowed.

Things are of course not always that simple.

Chat used to be felis in classical Latin, and only became cattus later, probably from an African or Middle East origin (Kadis in Nubia or Gato in Syria), so it is "inherited from borrowed".

Some words like empereur are clearly of the first type (with emperere as intermediary step) while impératrice belongs to a third class: it is a word that has been restored to a spelling closer to its Latin roots by scholars, as in old French, empereriz and variants like emperreriz, empereresse, emperesresce, empeerris, empeirreis, emperix, emperies, empereys, emperice, amperice, emperresse, emperesse, empereise, anperaice, eporaice were used.

  • For "impératrice", "emperesse" or "empereresse" was common form in the Middle-Ages (Villehardouin for instance).
    – wazoox
    Nov 26, 2020 at 17:46
  • @wazoox Indeed, they are variations of empereriz. More of them added to my reply.
    – jlliagre
    Nov 26, 2020 at 18:43

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