11 January 2016

Word choices, or how to find your inner Anglo-Saxon

The following was originally written for my English for Scientists course that I taught at the Leibniz Institute in Potsdam.

The English language has a complex and fascinating history. That history affects how certain words are perceived. Therefore it affects your word choices when writing in English.

A brief history of the English language

The “Heptarchy” of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
From Wikimedia Commons

English ultimately is derived from Anglo-Saxon (sometimes called “Old English”), a language closely related to Low German (Plattdeutsch), Dutch, and Frisian. In the late 5th century AD, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from northern Germany and Denmark invaded and colonized what became England — “Angle-Land” — which until then had been Roman and Celtic. Almost no words of Latin or Celtic survive from that period in English, making it clear that the Romano-British population was completely displaced by the Anglo-Saxons. (Their descendants are the modern Welsh and Cornish.) The Anglo-Saxons then formed into several kingdoms like Kent, Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria, which gradually formed into one kingdom of England.

Here is the Lord’s Prayer in Anglo-Saxon from about the year 1000. The “þ” is called “thorn” and is the “th” sound in “this”; the “ð” is called “eth” and is the “th” sound in “thin”.

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice.1

By way of comparison, here it is in the English of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:

Our father, which art in heaven,
hallowed by thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done,
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into remptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Starting around the year 800, Vikings began to attack the British Isles. After 865, they started an all-out conquest of England — which nearly succeeded. While they were beaten back and defeated by King Alfred the Great in 886, Alfred had to accept their control over the northern and eastern parts of England, which became known as the “Danelaw”. To this day, many place names in northern England have the Danish “-by” ending (like Derby) alongside the Anglo-Saxon “-ham” ending (like Grantham). Many Viking words were added to Old English and used alongside Anglo-Saxon words, like heavens (Anglo-Saxon) and sky (Old Norse). Words like bash and skull and give and take all came from the Vikings.

From 1016 to 1035, England was ruled by a Danish king, Canute (or Cnut), and was briefly part of a Scandinavian empire. This brought more Danish colonists, which left its mark on the language. Titles like earl (jarl) came into English at this time alongside the English thegn/thane.

In 1066, the Normans led by William the Conqueror invaded England and took the crown. The Normans were originally Vikings who colonized northern France, but by the time of the Norman Conquest, they spoke a dialect of Old French. They replaced nearly the whole upper class of Anglo-Saxon society all at once. Thus to this day legal and high culture terms in English are generally French in origin. Until the 19th century, legal proceedings in England were still largely conducted in Norman French. In many cases French words were used alongside Anglo-Saxon ones: kingly (Anglo-Saxon) and royal (French), for example. Even the word “government” is French.

After 1066, English went into a kind of long sleep, barely surviving as the language of simple peasants and farmers. For almost 300 years, the English noble class spoke French and ignored English. It wasn’t until King Edward III (reign 1327-1377) that an English king spoke English in Parliament.

Because of the steady immigration of different language groups and the lack of an elite to maintain standards, English became much simpler — like a créole or patois in the Caribbean or Africa simplifies English today. Inflections and genders (der/die/das/die, dem/der/dem/den…) like you see in German nearly vanished, though a few examples remain: who/whom, he/him/his, or calling a ship her.

English also shifted from the German habit of making compound words to the French manner of stringing words together separately. Germanic compound words like handbook, highway, townsfolk gave way to phrases. Where German or Old English would form a compound word like Hochschule, English prefers to leave the words separate: high school. Note the lack of a hyphen as well.

In spite of all this change, throughout history, the bedrock of English remained firmly Anglo-Saxon. Of the 100 most commonly used words in English,2 nearly all are of Anglo-Saxon origin: words like the, this, I, and, by, for, two, and so on. For most common things, there is an Anglo-Saxon word that can be used and is often preferred.

Thanks to the constant input of new words from Danes, Normans, and the Church, English gained a huge vocabulary filled with synonyms taken from Old Norse, Norman French, and Latin. Instead of just “red”, an apple in English can be “crimson”, “ruby”, “carmine”, “maroon”, “scarlet”, “vermillion”, “russet”, “claret”, and more besides.

Then came Shakespeare (1564-1616), who almost singlehandedly transformed the language. Shakespeare is said to have coined over 1700 words,3 and many common phrases we use today were invented by him. Phrases like the be-all and end-all, put your best foot forward, brave new world, to breathe his last, crack of doom, and hundreds more were all from Shakespeare.

This richness of language in English is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it makes it possible for poets and writers to have greater shades of meaning than is possible in other languages, but it is also a curse, because the temptation is always there to abuse that privilege.

What is language for?

This matters in your writing because you are not writing poetry or art, you are writing to be understood. Language in this case is for a very specific purpose: giving information as efficiently and easily as possible.

Let’s talk about the King James Bible, a translation in English that was completed in 1611. Like you, the translators wanted to reach as wide an audience and communicate as clearly as possible. The reason was their Protestant zeal to bring the Bible to all people so that anyone could understand it, not just priests. To this day the King James Bible ranks as one of the best-written English texts of all time. It is loved for its clarity and simplicity. Along with Shakespeare — who lived at about the same time the King James Bible was translated — it ranks as the strongest influence on the English langauge of any single work. Hundreds of common phrases and idioms we use today come from that Bible — ashes to ashes, a broken heart, a drop in the bucket, a labor of love, flesh and blood — these and many more come from the King James Version.4

The biggest reason it is considered to be so clear and precise is because its translators preferred to stick to simple Anglo-Saxon words. They only coined Latinate or Greek words only where absolutely necessary and where the meaning of those words is “crystal clear” (that is a term coined by the King James Bible, by the way).

Somehow, through all the centuries, English speakers have kept a preference for those ancient words, and people who overuse French, Latin, Greek or other “foreign” words still come across to many as elitist, opaque, distant, snobbish, even aggressive — all negative words that come from Norman French, by the way. Perhaps this gut feeling is also an echo of the feelings the defeated Anglo-Saxons must have felt toward their Norman overlords.

This is helpful to remember when trying to understand how words are perceived by native speakers of English. It happens on a deeply subconscious level; most people would not know why it sounds better or worse. The reader almost certainly won’t think much about why they feel the way they do about the text, but they will still have those feelings. Those feelings in turn can change how your writing is perceived in subtle, yet important ways.

The only rule in English: There are no rules

It may sound strange, but English has no commonly agreed rules. German has Duden, the French have the Academie française, but English has many competing sets of rules. Even within individual countries, there are multiple dictionaries and rule sets to choose from. One dictionary may say a word is spelled “cookie”, another may insist it is “cooky”.

Furthermore, since there never was a central authority deciding what the rules are, English never went through a complete reform like German has done. Where a word’s spelling from one dialect became the preferred one, a totally different pronunciation from a different dialect would also become the choice. Hence English spelling often has no rhyme or reason. Cough, though, thought, and rough all use the combination ough, but sound totally different from each other. Then there are differences between American, British, Canadian, and Australian English — is it center or centre, honor or honour, tyre or tire, while or whilst?

The answer to this problem is the rules are whatever the group you are in says they are. If you are in America or are in contact with Americans, use American English. If in contact with British people, use British English. Then decide which style guide you need to use, if you need it. But the main thing is, don’t worry about it too much — even native speakers get things like this wrong all the time!