I've never studied etymology, but I find myself interested in how words came into Latin and how Latin gave rise to words in other languages. There are many sources for finding the etymology of a given word, and I would like to supplement that available information with some basic understanding of the underlying processes.

Is there good introductory material for Latin etymology, both to or within Latin and from it? I am looking for a simple introduction with basic ideas, fallacies, and examples. After reading it I would hopefully have a better intuition as to whether a given etymological explanation is plausible. I don't have any strict criteria, but I hope my intention is clear enough.

I would prefer it to be under about 20 pages. Imagine the material you would use when giving a one-hour talk on the topic for the general public. If I get more interested, I could consider a whole book, but I want to start small enough and get a clue of some basics. In the scholarly fields I am most familiar with — mathematics and physics — the best kind of source for this kind of goal would be lecture notes, but for Latin it might be something else like the introductory section of a book.

Ideally, I'm looking for a single source, but I realize that it might not exist. It's fine if the source only covers one direction (to/within or from Latin); I can use other sources for other aspects. It's also not an issue if it's not specifically about Latin but otherwise great; I can supplement Latin-specific things elsewhere. All suggestions for material in this spirit are welcome to help me — and hopefully others too — get started.

  • If there is a 20 pager, surely it should be about 50% bibliography. If you find one, please post back. Actually, I had thought you could write one yourself.
    – vectory
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 20:23

3 Answers 3


It sounds like you're looking for two or three different things: an introduction to Latin historical linguistics (i.e. development of Latin from Proto-Indo-European); an introduction to Romance historical linguistics (i.e. development of the Romance languages from Latin); and possibly an introduction to the field of historical linguistics generally (since you say "it's not an issue if it's not specifically about Latin"). These are all big topics, so it might be hard to find sources that cover them in 20 pages or less; there are of course plenty of book-length monographs on all three of the above subjects. Since etymology is your interest, though, we can at least leave aside pretty much everything but phonology, which might get us to chapter length.

For Latin historical phonology, you might consider Chapter 8 of L.R. Palmer's The Latin Language (1954), which is just over 20 pages. This is old (and has the associated shortcoming that it omits all mention of laryngeals), but is still useful as an introduction.

I know less about sources for Romance historical phonology, but Michael Weiss's Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin (2009) contains a rather cursory chapter (ch. 44) on Proto-Romance phonology; this doesn't go very far into the individual daughter languages, though. There are various more-or-less recent books all titled The Romance Languages, e.g. by W.D. Elcock (1975), M. Harris and N. Vincent (1988), and R. Posner (1996), but I haven't used any of them.

For general historical linguistics there are again lots of introductory textbooks, which will all contain sections about phonology. Leonard Bloomfield's Language (1933) is a classic book about linguistics generally which has two chapters (ch. 20-21) about "phonetic change", and tends to use more examples from Indo-European, including Latin and Romance, than more recent books (and is also a better read, to my taste anyway).


For the path from Latin to Romance you can still not do better than Meyer-Lübke, Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Heidelberg 1911. The lemmas are the Latin words (or reconstructed Vulgar Latin, marked with *), and give the descendants in all the Romance languages. It is a big book; the best thing is to flip through it at random.


If taken literally, I can't help you out with a 20 pages syllabus.

On a quick websearch, I found Philip Baldi, The Foundations of Latin (2012)-- on gbooks.

from page 66 on, Baldi gives an interesting perspective over a couple dozent pages More directly, "Ancient Italy and its Proto-Indo-Eur..." starts pg. 93.

For a basic intro, Wikipedia is always a good start, choose your own adventure.

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