Should You Angle for Anglo-Saxon, or Enlighten with Latin?

By Mark Nichol

Arguments for and against favoring Latinate words over Germanic ones, or vice versa (or, if you prefer a non-Latinate phrase, the other way around), have been heard over the years. What’s best? How about the status quo?

The vocabulary of Modern English is the result of a unique admixture of words (and phrases) from a variety of languages. But only about one-fourth derive directly from Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, and other Germanic languages. More than that come from Latin — and Latin’s progeny (mostly Spanish and French) account for as many more words. Admittedly, many Latin words are used primarily in legal, scientific, and medical contexts, whereas Germanic words tend to be more practical for everyday life, but the Latinate contribution is still predominant over native words, and the language is richer for the widespread borrowings.

Given the choice between words from the Germanic root and those of Latin origin, which should one choose? How about one or the other, on an ad hoc basis, or as your mood strikes you? Various movements have attempted to eradicate non-Germanic vocabulary from the English word-hoard, or at least minimize it, but these absurd endeavors, which have sometimes included efforts to create or calque (translate) new words, have been prompted by nationalism, not by any sensible motive.

To communicate plainly, Germanic words, which tend to be shorter, are often preferable, but the Latinate pain, for example, is as simple as the Germanic ache, and Germanic anger and wrath are slightly more complicated than ire and rage, both of which are of Latin provenance but could easily be misidentified as Germanic words.

If you do want to introduce more Germanic words into your writing, it’s easy, for instance, to target classes of words with specific suffixes: For example, words that end in the Latinate suffix -age have more concise synonyms: Think of advantage (gain), marriage (wedlock), savage (wild), and voyage (trip). But where would we be without parentage? “Mother and father” may be more concrete, but the Latinate term is more concise, more precise, and more flexible when it comes to nontraditional families.

For another example, words ending in -ity are often more complicated; why not, for example, write selfhood instead of identity? Unfortunately, identity often refers to a collective, rather than individual, impression. (And often, when one considers alternatives for Latinate words, the first synonym that comes to mind is non-Germanic, too: Quick, what’s another word for fidelity? Loyalty? That’s from French. Allegiance? French.) For yet another example, though words ending in -ology are of Latin origin, there’s no suitable Germanic equivalent for the suffix.

Ultimately, word choice depends on various factors, but the ground a word sprang up in shouldn’t be one of them.

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6 Responses to “Should You Angle for Anglo-Saxon, or Enlighten with Latin?”

  • AnWulf

    The “root” of root is Germanic (or Germanish, Teutonish if you like). From Old English rot, from Old Norse rot “root”, from Proto-Germanic *wrot, *vrot (with characteristic loss of -w- before -r-), from PIE *wrd-. Akin to Latin radix.

    Allegiance’s upspring is a bit murky but it’s not Latin. From Anglo-French legaunce “loyalty of a liege-man to his lord”, from Old French legeance, from liege (see liege); mistakenly bound with Latin ligare “to bind” … Liege … Middle English lege, lige, liege, from Anglo-Norman lige, from Old French liege (“liege, free”), from Middle High German ledic, ledec (“free, empty, vacant”) (German ledig (“unwed”)) from Ur-Germanic *liþugaz (“flexible, free, unoccupied”). An another etymology puts the Old French word from Late Latin laeticus “of or relating to a semifree colonist in Gaul” from laetus “a semi-free colonist”, of Germanic upspring, akin to Old English læt (“servant”).

    Ire is also murky … OE yrre, irre … anger, wrath … from Germanic upspring. Godes yrre bær — Bearing God’s anger — Beowulf, 711.

    Loyalty … stedfast, hold

    BTW, pain from Greek (thru Latin) and is an early Germanic borrowing.

    The word for noting fewer Latinates is Anglish … there many words that were needlessly besteaded (replaced) by Latinates after 1066 … that’s the line from which most Anglishers start. Latinates before then are thought to be a from a more natural growth and swapping of words rather the stuff down the throats that came afterwards.

    For a list of OE Latinates (I hav a few to add) see: http://anwulf.blogspot.com/2013/05/old-english-latinates.html

  • Paul

    Truthfully, who but a simpleton would even consider removing a significant amount of the available brushes from his/her toolbox before starting a painting?

    Writing is no different from painting in this respect. Our brushes, which we use to paint vivid scenes directly upon the imagination of a reader, are the words in our vocabulary.

    We do not speak either German or Latin, and it does not matter whether both languages have a place in the roots of English. We speak English, a rich and vibrant language in its own right.

    To quibble over a word’s root origin is inane. To remove the use of a word due to origin is insane, a senseless act of prejudice that ultimately cripples the painter.

  • Ængelfolc

    “For yet another example, though words ending in -ology are of Latin origin, there’s no suitable Germanic equivalent for the suffix.”

    REALLY?! Not true. OE lār -> M.E. lore -> E. lore (same Germanic root as E. learn) means “branch of knowledge, learning of” the same as Grk. -(o)logy.

    1. Folklore
    2. Booklore
    3. Wordlore
    4. Birdlore
    5. Woodlore

    …to name a few.

    Television could have easily been called a “Farseer” in true English much like the Germans did (Fernseher). Indeed, Germans today have taken on T.V. (rarely die Television).

    Computer could have easily been “Reckoner” without fremd words.

    English did/does not NEED -ology like most other fremd borrowings it has now. Borrowings are good to have if they truly fill a need or gap. Sadly, most of the ones in English are inkhorns and overmuch; they do nothing to make English “richer.”

  • Mary Hodges

    Anglo-Saxon or Latinate words? Simple. It depends on what you are writing and who is going to read it. A learned treatise for academics will use more Latin-derived words, while a piece for a popular magazine will have a greater proportion of words of Anglo-Saxon origin.
    Neither style is better or worse. They are just different and a good writer adapts the vocabulary used to the context and the intended audience.

  • Deidre M. Simpson

    I prefer Teutonic when I refer to German language and word origins. Actually, I don’t have a preference when it comes to Teutonic v. Latin. It’s hard enough to write clearly, not just to be understood but to communicate my intended meaning.

    It still bothers me when I ask a person if he or she has siblings. Somehow people don’t know the meaning. Why say three words (brothers or sisters) instead of one? Anyway, they’re all English.

    (This has been brought to you by a woman who had an Irish Gaelic name until the same world that made senility into Alzheimer’s Disease transformed it into Celtic.)

  • Mark

    Is there a technique to edit a MS Word dictionary to be preferential to either Germanic or Latin roots?

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