The 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.
P.S. If you’re a professional who writes every day, please join me and @ShakirahDawud on Thursday, May 17 at 4 pm ET for #WrMatters, a Tweet Chat dedicated to the writing questions that trouble you most. We’ll pose and answer questions to make sure your writing matters. We hope to see you there!