Ever wonder why English has so many bloody synonyms? If you are a layperson who has ever wondered about this question, then this blog post is for you. It’s been 3 years since I last tackled the subject of the varied vocabulary of the English language, and I thought it was time for a more detailed article outlining not only the reasons why English has such a varied vocabulary, but the effect that having such a pedigree has on the way we use the language. In this blog post, I’m going to focus only on two sources of English vocabulary (Germanic and Latinate) and the perception that these words have in the common English-speaking psyche.
The History Part
English is derived from a Germanic language – Anglo-Saxon (called ‘Ænglisc’ by contemporaries and designated ‘Early Old English‘ by modern linguists) which was utterly Germanic in its forms, structures, and vocabulary. Throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, the Norse-speaking Vikings brought their Germanic language to England which was mutually comprehensible with Anglo-Saxon. This merger of the two Germanic languages led to a simplification of the complex grammatical forms of each language and ‘Late Old English‘ was born.
But in 1066, England was invaded by William the Conqueror, a Norman-speaking duke and this changed the English language forever. Norman (often called Norman-French) was a dialect of the Langues d’Oïl, a dialect continuum which came ultimately from Latin and also later developed into Norman’s sister language, Modern French. After the Norman Conquest, England saw an influx of Latinate words from Norman-French.
The collapse of England to William the Conqueror in 1066 drove many of the Anglo-Saxon lords across the border, turning the Lowlands of Scotland into an aristocratic refugee camp. The Scots language emerged in this period (Scots is not a Celtic language like Gaelic, it is a dialect of Anglo-Saxon and therefore a sister language to modern English). Scots tends to have fewer Norman-French borrowings than English, although French did have a huge influence on Scots in a later period. Here is a short list of a few words which Scots retained, but which in English were replaced by or (coexisted with) Norman equivalents:
|fowk||people / folk|
However, English went a different route from its sister Scots and began a process of “creolisation” with Norman. A creole is a mother tongue formed from the contact of two or more languages. In modern times, we think of a creole as between a colonial European language (for instance, English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese) with one or more local or native languages (for example, various West African languages spoken by slaves in the West Indies) and most extant creoles are such colonial creations.
However, English is also a creole in the strictest sense. Over a few generations, the Anglo-Saxon language began to merge with the French of the Norman invaders producing ‘Middle English‘. In the later Renaissance, words were imported directly from Latin and Greek in their thousands and great changes in pronunciation took place leading to Shakespeare’s ‘Early Modern English‘^ which then became ‘Modern English‘ during the colonial period. English therefore became a mongrel language, mixing Germanic (Anglo-Saxon-Saxon and Norse), Greek and Latinate (Norman-French and Latin) roots.†
Throughout the history of the English language a great simplification of grammatical structures took place. Early Old English was tremendously complex in terms of noun and verb endings. An example can be found in the changes that occurred to the Old English word for “woman”: cwene.
Early Old English cwen, cwene, cwenan, cwenena, cwenum
Late Old English cwēn, cwēne
Middle English quene, quean
Modern English queen
In this example, we can also see how the meanings of Old English words were often vastly different to the way we use the words today. “Queen” simply meant “woman”, but in the Middle English period, the word “queen” began to shift in meaning, with the Old English word wīfman (wife-man) taking its place which became wimman in Middle English.
Incidentally, the word queen is ultimately from the hypothetical Indo-European word for woman: *gwen and is related to the Greek word gunē or gynē from which we get the words “gynecology“, “misogyny” and “gynoid” (the feminine version of an android).
The Character of Germanic and Latinate Words
As a (very rough) general rule, words derived from the Germanic ancestors of English are shorter, more concrete, and more direct, whereas Latinate words are longer and more abstract: compare, for instance, the Anglo-Saxon thinking with the Latinate cognition.
Modern Germanic languages can seem more direct and plain-spoken from an English-speaker’s point of view, even though they often have a propensity to make long compound words. A “hospital” in Norwegian is a “sykehus” (sick house), independent is “selvstendig” (self standing) and an “airport” is a “flyplass” (lit. aeroplane place, looks like “fly place”). The German word for “hydrogen” is “Wasserstoff” (water stuff), and “oxygen” is “Sauerstoff” (sour stuff – our word is from the Greek word oxys meaning sharp, sour, acidic). If you’re eating “Schweinefleisch” in Germany, you would simply be eating pork (swine flesh). Fernsehen is a loan translation (or “calque”) of the English television (from the Greek tele– “far” and Latin visio “sight”).
Many would say that calling a television a “farseer” would seem more logical than choosing the made up Greek-Latin Frankenstein creation that is “television” (why use Ancient Greek and Latin to describe a modern invention that those ancients didn’t have?) and there are many language purists who would see English return to its Germanic roots. Linguistic purism in its moderate form, just means using existing native words instead of foreign-derived ones (such as using begin instead of commence). In its more extreme form though, it involves resurrecting native words that are no longer widely used (such as *lore for science, *ettle for intend, or *aparthood for separation) and/or coining new words from Germanic roots (such as *wordstock for vocabulary). The resulting language is sometimes called “Anglish” (coined by the author and humorist Paul Jennings), which is a constructed language that avoids borrowed words where possible, and where there is no alternative, invents a new coinage in its stead. The mild form of Anglish is often advocated as part of the Plain English movement, but the more extreme form is a fringe movement.
In the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Barnes tried to introduce words like *birdlore for ornithology and *bendsome for flexible. Words such as “biology“, “geology“, “linguistics” and “astronomy” become “*lifelore“, “*earthlore“, “*speechcraft” and “*starcraft” and instead of “the globe is divided into continents“, you would write “the world is cleft into landblocks“.
There is even a wiki in Anglish demonstrating this interesting linguistic playfulness. An article on England says:
England is a land on the island of Great Britain in the North-West of Europe. It takes its name from the Angles who began settling there in the 400s. Before this settling there was no land called England, but rather the whole of Britain was a mingling of Celts and Romers.
There is also quite a quaint-looking article on “Eveland” (read it and see if you can guess what “Eveland” is). The impetus for this ambitious project is that “although [English] has borrowed thousands and thousands of words throughout its life, there still exists an English core to [Latinised] English, the most important everyday words which no sentence or uttering could manage without. By stripping away the layers of borrowings, Anglish lets us better appreciate that core and the role it plays in our language”.
And it certainly does so in many ways. It allows us to see what English would be like if there had been no Norman conquest, and somehow, in the above example, the words on the page seem tospeak directly to the heart of the native English speaker.
However, the leafwrit (article) on Ghandi does get a bit incomprehensible though when it refers to him as a “*mootish shrither who fostered a mighty, unwrathful shrithing, so that he could help andwend unfair laws“, and the article on the “French Overturning” says that “*bewhile these years (1789-1799) the lawmoot and smighs about how France should be reded frothered many times”.
Even though you can’t really get the full meaning, there’s something over-dramatic about these entries that you almost cannot put your finger on, similar to how you can almost “understand” Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Jabberwocky‘. The same sense of almost Biblical high drama can be seen in “The Forme of Cury” the first cookbook in English which, in 1390, instructed cooks to:
“take ye pyggs and quarter them and seethe them in water and salt and temper them up with vyneger sumwhat thyk and cast ye therefore the pyggs unto a broad vessel and serve it forth”.
– The Forme of Cury (1390)
Unnecessarily flowery language is discussed in depth by David Crystal who references the inkhorn term controversy of the 16th and 17th centuries during the transition from Middle English to Modern English. It was a time when English was in competition with Latin as the main language of science and learning in England, having already displaced French. Many new words were being introduced into the language by scholars, often self-consciously borrowing from the Classical literature that they were well-versed in. Critics regarded these words as unnecessary, prenentious, and the phrase “ink horn term” now refers to a writer who has an overly fussy or pedantic writing style. These words usually required a knowledge of Latin or Greek to be understood. Even Shakespeare railed against these words:
And ere that we will suffer such a prince,
So kind a father of the commonweal,
To be disgraced by an inkhorn mate
— Henry VI, Part 1, William Shakespeare
A notable critic of inkhorn terms in the 20th century was George Orwell, who advocated what he saw as plain Saxon words over complex Latin or Greek ones. He states:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks […] English […] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
— Politics and the English Language
Orwell even went as far as to write a “Translation” of Ecclesiastes 9:11:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
…would become what Orwell calls “modern English of the worst sort“:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Orwell points out that this “translation” contains many more syllables but gives no concrete illustrations, as the original did, nor does it contain any vivid, arresting, images or phrases.
The legacy of inkhorn terms in modern English is that the choice of either Latinate or Anglo-Saxon vocabulary in English has a profound effect on the perception of an utterance:
A sentence resplendent with Latinate or Greek lexis is perceived as pretentious and grandiloquent…
…but a string of Anglo-Saxon or Norse words seems more straightforward and down-to-earth.
Notice that in the above sentences, it’s possible to use all Germanic words, but it is extremely difficult to use all Latinate words. I can avoid using Latinate words, but not Anglo-Saxon ones because the latter form the fundamental building blocks of the language. If content words (nouns, verbs and adjectives) are the ‘bricks’ of the English language, then the ‘mortar’ is made up of articles such as “a” and “the“, prepositions such as “in” and “on“, conjunctions such as “and” and “but” and simple verbs such as “is“, “am” and “are“. These are all Anglo-Saxon words which keep our language together no matter how many words we pilfer from other languages.
Often we can find pairs of words, near synonyms, of which one comes from a Germanic root and one from a Latinate root. Sometimes, in fact, we have three or four closely related words, one each from Anglo-Saxon, from Norse, from Norman-French, and directly from Latin.
- kingly (Anglo-Saxon)
- royal (from Norman-French roy)
- regal (from Latin rex, regis)
- wrong (Norse)
- false (Norman-French)
- incorrect (Latin)
- sickness (Anglo-Saxon)
- illness (Norse)
- malady (Norman-French)
- infirmity (Latin)
- are usually less formal
- tend to be concrete and easy to understand
- are more often single syllables or shorter words
- are more quickly read and understood
- can be more forceful, shocking, and harsher.
Some examples of Anglo-Saxon words:
send, build, stop, hearty, mock, shit, fuck
- are usually more formal
- are more often polysyllabic
- have a more high-brow or proper feel
- are often obscure in meaning
- often turn into euphemisms for blunter Anglo-Saxon words
Some examples of Latinate words (see how they contrast to Anglo-Saxon words):
transmit, construct, resist, cordial, imitate, excrement, intercourse
As we consider 7 categories of words keep in mind that although many of the pairs may initially seem to refer to different ideas and concepts, originally in Early Middle English they would have had the same meaning (ie. cow in Anglo-Saxon referred to both the beast and the food, and likewise, beef in Norman French was both animal and meal and it wasn’t until a later period that the words diverged in meaning):
1. INFORMAL vs. FORMAL
Often, the word derived from Anglo-Saxon is the more informal or prosaic term and is more likely to be shorter and easier to understand and the Latinate term is more formal and has a more ‘educated’ feel. This is not always the case (as we shall see in section 5), but it is a general rule. Consider the following word pairs keeping in mind that the differences in meaning are relatively recent (the first list is quite long):
|wisdom||prudence / sagacity|
2. CONCRETE/PHYSICAL vs. ABSTRACT/CONCEPTUAL
Anglo-Saxon words have a tendency to be rooted in the physical, whereas Latinate words are more abstract in scope. For example, a swimming pool can be deep, but feelings and emotions can be either deep or profound. Similarly, freedom is more of a physical state, but liberty is more conceptual and associated with political and civil liberties. We have a Statue of Liberty, but no Statue of Freedom.
3. DRAMATIC/STRONG/DIRECT vs. WEAK/EUPHEMISTIC/INDIRECT
As seen above in the examples from the Anglish Moot and The Forme of Cury, Anglo-Saxon words often seem stronger, more complete or more dramatic than their Latinate alternatives. Consider the ways in which the following pairs of words are used differently in Modern English:
|smell, stench, reek||odour|
4. COMMON NOUN vs TECHNICAL ADJECTIVE
It can also be the case that we use the Anglo-Saxon word as the common noun, and a seemingly completely unrelated Latinate or Greek adjective to describe the word in a technical field. This is usually seen in scientific fields of study such as biology, medecine, geology etc.
Examples of Anglo-Saxon/Greek technical noun-adjective word pairs are earthquake / seismic and colour / chromatic. However, although most of these word pairs tend to be Greek, Latinate ones nonetheless abound.
5. POETIC / OLD FASHIONED vs. PROSAIC / ORDINARY
Although Latinate words in general tend to be more abstract and indirect, because of the antiquity of Old English words there are a few Anglo-Saxon terms that do seem quite poetic. In these cases, it is in fact the Latinate word which has come to be seen as more prosaic and ordinary. This phenomenon is quite rare though, and there are not as many Latinate words which bear this connotation.
6. PLEBIAN DISCOMFORT vs. ARISTOCRATIC LUXURY
Certain nouns refer to objects which express the comfort of the Norman nobles vs. the discomfort of the Anglo-Saxon peasantry. Whereas Anglo-Saxons were content to sleep in their bedrooms and sit on their backless stools, the Norman aristocrat reposed in their chambers and lounged on their chairs with ornate backrests and elaborate padding. While the Anglo-Saxon peasantry practised animal husbandry, the Normans merely ate the meals that their servants prepared for them. The names for the animal and the meats procured from them therefore diverged.
|cup (existed in Old English but originally from Latin)||chalice|
|cow (Old English: cū)||beef (Anglo-Norman: beof / Old French: boef)|
|calf (Old English: cealf)||veal (Anglo-Norman: vel / Old French: veel)|
|swine (Old English: swīn)pig (Old English: picga)||pork (Old French: porc)|
|sheep (Old English: scēap)||mutton (Old French: moton)|
|hen (Old English: henn)chicken (Old English: cicen)||poultry (Old French Pouletrie)|
|deer (Old English: dēor)||venison (Old Norman: venesoun)|
|snail (Old English: snægl)||escargot (Old French: escargol)|
|dove (Old English: dūfe)||pigeon (Old French: pijon)|
7. VULGAR vs. POLITE
Germanic words can seem more forceful, shocking, and harsher. Most of our vulgarities are of Anglo-Saxon ancestry: compare, for instance, shit (from proto-Germanic “*skit-“) with excrement (from the Latin “excrementum“). Incidentally, the Norwegian word skit merely means dirt whereas the German Scheise has the same meaning as the English profanity.
The words from Germanic roots often have four letters and/or a single syllable, are very often taboo (fuck, shit, cunt‡). Even the more modern expletives and profanities tend to follow this pattern (cock, dick, tits, bitch‡). According to the online etymology dictionary:
[The word “shit“] was taboo from c. 1600 and rarely appeared in print (neither Shakespeare nor the KJV has it), and even in “vulgar” publications of the late 18c. it is disguised by dashes. It drew the wrath of censors as late as 1922 (“Ulysses” and “The Enormous Room”), scandalized magazine subscribers in 1957 (a Hemingway story in “Atlantic Monthly”) and was omitted from some dictionaries as recently as 1970 (“Webster’s New World”).
Fuck was outlawed in print in England (by the Obscene Publications Act, 1857) and the U.S. (by the Comstock Act, 1873). The word continued in common speech, however. […] The legal barriers against use in print broke down in mid-20c. with the “Ulysses” decision (U.S., 1933) and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (U.S., 1959; U.K., 1960). The major breakthrough in publication was James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” (1950), with 50 fucks (down from 258 in the original manuscript).
You may have noticed throughout, that Anglo-Saxon words tend to be shorter than Latinate ones. Even though there are some polysyllabic Germanic words, these words tend to be compounds which spell out meaning to the Anglophone in monosyllabic or bisyllabic chunks, such as “slaughter-house”, “wis-dom”, “brother-ly” or “free-dom”. The vast majority of Germanic semantic units are monosyllabic.
- ghost, phantom
- help, assistance
- buy, purchase
- wish, desire
- drink, beverage
- wise, prudent / sagacious
- folk, people
- wed, marry
In conclusion, the English language is a rich smårgasbord of vocabulary that can be used to accurately put forth ideas. We can use words to be pretentious or down-to-earth, to sound like an educated scholar or a people person. So, next time you use a word, please keep in mind not just the meaning but the feeling/connotation that the word has for you. It will help you to put forth your ideas in a way that is more sympathetic and tailored to your target audience.
^ Be aware that the language of Shakespeare is not ‘Old English’, but ‘Early Modern English’. Old English is practically incomprehensible to modern Anglophones without as seen in the prologue to Beowulf which reads “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.“. Middle English is exemplified by Geoffrey Chauser’s Canterbury Tales which he opens “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droughte of March hath perched to the roote…”. Looking at those two masterpieces it is clear that Shakespeare’s poem (possibly written to his lover William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke) which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, thou art more lovely and more temperate…” is an early form of Modern English not ‘Old English’ as is popularly believed.
† Latin and Greek are both classical languages which English has borrowed from extensively. Many Latin phrases are used verbatim in English texts—et cetera (etc.), ad nauseam, modus operandi (M.O.), ad hoc, in flagrante delicto, mea culpa, and so on—but relatively few Greek phrases or expressions are. Among them are: hoi polloi ‘the many’, eureka ‘I have found (it)’. Greek has more of a tendency than Latinate words to be used in extremely academic, abstract and esoteric fields such as medicine, science, mathematics and philosophy (dialysis, blastocyst, diploid, diameter, polytheistic, psyche). There are lots of words from Greek which have come into popular use. However, not as many as words from Latinate roots (Norman and Latin). For this reason, and for simplicity, we will focus more on the words with Latinate roots and ignore the Greek ones.
‡ The “C-word” and the “B-word” are words that I never say, due to the misogynistic connotations that the words have accrued over the centuries, yet I feel it is ok to write them without asterisks or other forms of censorship in a blog post where the context is not derogatory or sexist but educational. If you feel my decision is wrong, please leave a comment along with your reason and I will review the post.
The Online Etymology Dictionary: www.etymonline.com
The Anglish Moot: anglish.wikia.com/wiki/Main_leaf
The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery (1390) www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8102
Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.
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Fowler, H.W., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford Univ. Press, 1926.
Gamillscheg, Ernst, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Französischen Sprache, Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1928.
Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785; 2nd edition, London, 1788; 3rd edition, London, 1796; expanded by others as Lexicon Balatronicum. A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, London, 1811.
Hall, J.R. Clark, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 1894, reprint with supplement by Herbert D. Meritt, University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Hindley, Alan, Frederick W. Langley, Brian J. Levy, Old French-English Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Klein, Dr. Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1971.
Lewis, Charlton T., Elementary Latin Dictionary, Oxford, 1890.
Liberman, Anatoly, Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
McSparran, Frances, chief editor, The Middle English Compendium, University of Michigan, 2006.
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