Choose English

Origins of EnglishThe English language has an uncountable number of words, possibly more than any other language on earth. There’s a simple reason for that.

England is an island. Like all islands, its borders are difficult to defend without a powerful navy, which England did not develop until the late 1500s, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First.

Unlike other islands like Greenland, Iceland, Madagascar, or Australia, England was populated early by tribes of people who retained their languages by maintaining small recessed villages or oral traditions that became written records that were preserved either by themselves or subsequent tribes.

From the Celts to the Anglo-Saxons, from the Vikings to the Frisians, from the Romans to the French, a rich history of invasion, conquest, and survival pervades the language that we now speak and write. That history is also one of a power struggle, likewise retained in the nuances of our language. Take for example the words sweat and perspire. Both are verbs. Both essentially mean the same thing – to excrete liquid from one’s pores in an attempt to cool the body when overheated. One is derived from the French, the other from the Anglo-Saxon. It is no coincidence that one retains the connotations of gentility and the other of grossness. Ladies perspire; football players sweat.

This is because in the Middle Ages the French were the ruling class and the Anglo-Saxons were peasants. Lords and ladies spoke French, the learned spoke Latin, and ordinary folk spoke Anglo-Saxon.

Words like honor, hospitality, and hygiene are all French in origin and their somewhat abstract nature bespeak of their upper class roots. Likewise melancholy, merchant, and mesmerize.

Anglo-Saxon words are more practical. Words like charcoal, cloth, and cloud are concrete nouns referring to specific objects we can see. Similarly gremlin, gristle, and grub. (Okay, we can’t see gremlins, but presumably the peasants felt they were living with the nasty little the things.)

Writers who are trying to clarify their texts are often advised to reduce or eliminate words of Latin origin. These are words with many syllables where roots have been pieced together with prefixes and suffixes to create meaning, words like transformation, astringent, exhume, quadruple, or bipedal. When you’ve had a grammar school education (in medieval terms, learning Latin and Greek), you know what bi and pied mean, so bipedal makes perfect sense. Likewise with trans and string and hum and quad. But “ordinary folk,” those who don’t have the money or the privilege or the power to receive an education can’t piece those words together. So words with Latin origins don’t make sense. Even today, readers judge them as overly complicated. Change, harsh, uncover, times four, and two-footed can be good substitutes in some contexts.

The distinction between words of French origin and those of Anglo-Saxon is far more subtle and advice here is less often given. But generally speaking, words from the French might strike your reader as somewhat abstract and therefore removed from the emotional realm. If you can find Anglo-Saxon substitutes, you stand a better chance of persuading your audience at the gut level. Stone, not rock; pride rather than honor; guarding instead of conserving – choose English and see what a difference a word makes.

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  1. Rajendranath Mehrotra says

    Such a baseless projection English Vocabulary is not welcome. Author should have done some serious home work before writing. English is neither rich nor a perfect language and is ‘No where near to Sanskrit’, which is the only perfect and oldest language of the World. Unlike English, it has ‘No borrowed’ words from any language of the World.

    • Rajendranath – Indo-European languages, including Sanskrit and Latin and the languages that have descended from them – all the Romance languages; i.e., French, German, Italian, Spanish are certainly far older than English. Relative age neither diminishes nor enhances the history of a country’s language. Whether a language is rich is a matter of personal opinion. And in my opinion, English is such. I have no opinion on Sanskrit since I neither speak nor write it. I never claimed that English was perfect. Indeed, I find its nuances part of its charm.

      • There is no oldest language in the world. Sanskrit developed out of Proto-Indo-European just like Latin and Greek and all the others did. It’s true that Sanskrit is older than English. I’m not sure about the Romance languages being older, though. Obviously Latin is, but when did French cease becoming a local dialect of Latin and become French? And when do we consider English to have begun?

        At any rate, English may not be perfect, but it certainly is rich.

        • I have to agree English is far from pure, and undoubtedly it will become more corrupt, but personally I think that’s exactly what should happen as times, technology and tastes change. I guess the proof of the pudding, as my mum used to say, is that fact that English has become the leading global Internet language, while Sanskrit is… well not so popular.

  2. I love English, but honestly it’s no more than I love any of the three other languages I can speak, read, and write on some level. I’m just more familiar with English as my mother tongue. Yet I’ve never considered separating the Normans from the Saxons when I speak or write. Could be kind of nerve-wracking, since I don’t know the linquistic roots of most of the words I use off the top of my head. But I often see where Latin has complicated words (or English has complicated Latin words) that could be simpler, at least to our ears.

    Interesting also that you say A-S words are more practical. Some of them have a suitably terse onomatopoeia to our Anglophone ears, but French words must sound practical at least to the French. Right?

    My thoughts are that since no language is perfect, English speakers, willy-nilly, were fortunate to add so many other language scraps to our Lexicon.

  3. Thank you for sharing your take on the history of English and emphasizing the advantages of concrete over abstract words. Many amateur writers, whether working adult native speakers, immigrants, or international graduate students, can benefit from adopting this powerful technique.
    By the way, here’s a link to a recent Ted-Ed video called “The Power of Simple Words” that makes this same, vital point.

  4. Hi again, Michelle.

    When I saw reference to this post in the updates section of LinkedIn, I said, “England isn’t an island. It has borders with Wales and Scotland. You replied, “Graham – you’re referring to political borders. I’m referring to linguistic ones.”

    Can you please expand on what you mean by linguistic borders in relation to what you refer to as England?

    • The island that today is comprised of Scotland, England, and Wales, known in myth as Albion, as you are well aware has a storied past that reaches into the dark ages. We can date the development of the English language on its shores to the period beginning around 500 AD. By then, the Picts and the Celts had traversed the land, as had the Romans, the former perhaps retreating into the far corners of the island. Tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from the Germanic regions of Europe had settled across it and were being invaded by Vikings. Thus the entire region was inhabited by tribesmen of various descent and anything like the national borders that we see today were non-existent.
      These political boundaries continued to shift throughout the three distinct stages of the development of the English language: 500-1300 AD, Old English; 1300-1500AD, Middle English; and 1500 – today, Modern English. Those are linguistic evolutions with boundaries defined by changes to the structure and syntax of the language. They are obviously affected by the history of England, but they are not bound by the same political borders that now exist on that island.
      I’ve not made any attempt to trace the history of Welsh or Gaelic, or to separate the history of English from its many different dialects, including British English, American English, Australian English as well as the lovely varieties found across England, Wales, and Scotland.
      I hope that answers the question. And I’m sorry to be so sweeping. But the article does take quite the bird’s-eye view.

  5. els willems says

    Thank you for your interesting exposé about the history of the English language.
    What strikes me that apart from the explicit examples you give, you use many words of Latin origine in your text. I count an average of 4 or 5 in every sentence ;-).

    Els Willems (alumna grammarschool)

  6. Once, knowing full well there are words one does not use in anything one writes, I dusted off my keyboard and typed the word brusquerie into something I wrote.

    I knew even then what people would say: “There’s no room in our language for such a foreign-sounding word — such a French-sounding word.” people would say. “Hemingway would never use such a French-sounding word.” they would add. “There are perfectly good American-sounding words that will work just as well. What’s wrong with good old American `brusqueness’, anyway?”
    They do not gladly suffer verbal license, these people.

    Nevertheless, I once used the word brusquerie in something I wrote.

    I had considered using brusqueness, even bruskness with a “k” rather than the generally accepted “que”. After all, the words are synonymous, aren’t they? In my dictionary brusquerie is defined as (what else?) brusqueness, and you can’t get much closer than that. But I found the flavor off, like mayonnaise when sour cream is called for.

    And so it once happened that I used the word brusquerie in something I wrote.

    Words will always carry more baggage than can be contained in our tight little textbook definitions. And we must consider more than mere meaning in our choice from among available options. We must consider how the word will fit into the sentence; into the paragraph; into the scheme of things entire. Does the word, in and of itself and without reference to its symbolic meaning, contribute to the sense and the sensibility of the composition? Does it facilitate, or does it impede the flow of the intended communication?

    The very presence of a word in a sea of neighboring words, the space it occupies on the printed page, can skew the subtle shades of its meaning. The various inflections when spoken, the rhythms, the textures, the heft of it on the tongue, the buoyancy as it lofts into the air, and the way it relieves the silence as it falls upon the ear all speak as eloquently of its meaning as anything written by lexicographers.

    Brusquerie is a butterfly of a word; brusqueness is a crow. If we were to characterize brusquerie as a rapier, then brusqueness would be an axe; bruskness with a “k” could only be a bludgeon. Each of these words has its utility in our linguistic armory; but they are not interchangeable. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

    Which is why I once used the word brusquerie in something I wrote. And, even though I own an eraser in perfect working condition, I have allowed that offensive word to remain on the page where I once typed it, and where it continues to incite the indignation of all who read it.

    And so I am compelled to explain, again and again, why it is that I once used the word brusquerie in something I wrote.

  7. Corrections:

    Colleagues on LinkedIn have pointed out to me the following two corrections in word origin. First, mesmerize, which is actually derived from a proper name, that of Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician (1733 to 1815) who experimented with the effects of magnetic energy upon animals and humans.

    Second, the word gremlin is actually quite recent, originating with the Royal Air Force in the Second World War to describe unexplained problems with machinery.

    Many thanks to my colleagues for setting me straight. And thank you to my loyal readers who are willing to put up with my own foibles (Fr.) and faux pas (Fr.) 🙂

  8. An interesting article. It always amuses me when people rail against “foreign” influences in English, because it is and always has been such a hybrid.

    In addition to Anglo-Saxon and Norman French I’d include Brythonic Celtic as an ancestor: the language of the pre-Roman British, which survives today as Welsh and Brreton and was also ancestral to the almost-dead languages of Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Brythonic gave us words like “tree” (“tri” in Welsh, “baum” in Germanic languages, “arbor/arbre” in Latin/French).

    The northern dialects of English are influenced by Old Norse from when they were part of the Viking kingdom of England, also known as the Danelaw. This shows up in street names ending “-gate” for example, from the same Old Norse roots as “-gade” and -“gatan” in modern Scandinavian languages.

    And when Britain entered its imperialist phase, words were plundered from other languages worldwide: “jungle” and “bungalow” are two examples from India, and there are many more.

    In the oft-quoted words of James Nicholl, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

  9. Tiffany Crowley says

    Women glow, gentlemen perspire, and horses sweat. As often as I tell my students not to be afraid of the simple strong sentence, I think we should also not be afraid of the more nuanced distinctions, provided both by linguistic history and modern connotations. I love the idea that readers of my work might have to look something up to add a brusquerie butterfly to their vocabulary, and there is a certain inside delight in using decadent and wondering how many realize that though modern use accepts it as meaning rich and sweet, deeper readers may realize it means spoilt. Stone and rock are equally solid, but have the slightest of different shades. I doubt using rock when you mean stone strengthens the art, but there is strength in simplicity whichever language it originated in.

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