The Anglo-Saxon Angle

By Mark Nichol

Are you an Anglist, or an anti-Anglist, or are you neutral in the debate about whether to favor words of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic origin over Latinate language?

You may have been unaware that there ever was a controversy about linguistic purism, or that the issue survives at all. Compared to the impassionate debate about the purity of the English language that raged several centuries ago, it’s nearly as dead as Anglo-Saxon — otherwise known as Old English — but it is pertinent to how we shape our prose.

As early as 150 years ago, English writer William Barnes advocated using a Germanic vocabulary rather than one heavily influenced by Latin (and Greek), believing that such an approach to language would benefit writers who lacked a classical education. Even George Orwell, in the mid-twentieth century, wrote (in the famous essay that inspired this post) “Bad writers — especially scientific, political, and sociological writers — are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.”

Now, however, the sentiment survives only in diluted form, mostly in the welcome trend toward replacing obfuscating prose with plain English.

But the writing world is a democratic one, and we therefore remain free (albeit with the intercession of editors) to employ the vocabulary that suits us. Do you have an ache, or a pain? It depends, literally, on how you feel. Do you have a sense of allegiance, or one of fidelity? Either will do, though connotations may differ (the former word often implies adherence to an institution, while fidelity is usually more of an interpersonal concept). Do you activate a beacon, or a signal? Again, divergent meanings have complicated the question, but the terms are largely interchangeable.

In each of these pairs of word examples, the first term is of Germanic origin, and the second is from Latin or Greek. Frequently, the classical term is considered more sophisticated (gain/avantage, begin/commence, buy/purchase), but exceptions occur (behavior/manner).

Adopting Orwell’s mild linguistic chauvinism to militant extremes is absurd, and any avoidance of a word or a turn of phrase on the basis of language origin is illogical — English is what it is — but consider that although Latin and Greek may seem more refined, Germanic terminology is often more colorful.

A more evocative word than either ache or pain is throe, used now only in the plural form in the phrase “the throes of,” which has come to mean “in the midst of” or “in the thick of.” Troth, meanwhile is more evocative than allegiance or fidelity, and harbinger is a delightful word that puts beacon or signal to shame (though it is closer in sense to guide or warning).

Furthermore, English would be enriched by some of the vocabulary suggested by various linguistic purists over the years, those who advocate, for example, shunning grammar for speechcraft and vocabulary for wordstock. These sturdy, hearty alternatives, along with the examples in the previous paragraph, have an archaic ring to them, but that’s no reason to confine them to the fantasy-genre ghetto. And owndom (property) and byspel (example) are too obscure to be of much use, but hue in place of color, sake in lieu of –oops, that’s from French! — cause, and span as a substitute for distance are trim, muscular words that strengthen sentences.

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6 Responses to “The Anglo-Saxon Angle”

  • James Martin

    What does “sake” mean?

  • Chihuahua Zero

    My standpoint that the origin of a word doesn’t really matter at a core level, and it’s more of a case-by-case manner of choosing words, so letting the origins of words make you obsessed about their usage is a little silly.

    Doesn’t mean word origin isn’t important, but a non-linguist can still write a novel or non-fiction piece with great prose without extensive lingual knowledge. Content matters the most.

  • thebluebird11

    I say: The more words, the merrier. I don’t know, don’t care to know and can’t remember anyway the exact origin of every word I speak, hear or read. If words are interchangeable, then we are very rich for the choices. If words are similar but have nuances that make them just a scoche different, even better; just as (supposedly) there are over 20 words for “snow” in the Eskimo language. To me, snow is more or less snow (OK, we do have slush and ice, but those aren’t the same). I suppose if you traipse around in it 6 months (or more) every year, you can probably notice some differences, and it might be important to be able to communicate the differences to others. Somewhere, somebody might need a word like “owndom,” even if just for Scrabble. Let’s not discard it!
    🙂

  • Sally

    I know, Mark, how much you love putting in bloopers so that I can catch you out!

    ‘Allegiance’ is from Latin, not Germanic (as is ‘fidelity,’ as you also say) — ‘ad ligare > alligare – to bind to.’

    But I agree with thebluebird – English can only be enriched by variety. And Anglism carries a nasty whiff of racism, as far as I am concerned.

    Incidentally, ‘speechcraft,’ ‘wordstock,’ ‘owndom’ and ‘byspel’ (also ‘leechcraft = medicine,’ ‘starcraft = astrology/astronomy,’ etc etc) are examples of what the Society for Creative Anachronism calls “speaking forsoothly” – some of you may also call it ‘Renfayre < Rennaisance Fair' (I can speak fluent Renfayre 😀 )

  • Mark Nichol

    Sally:

    Yes, of course, any error in one of my posts is deliberate (cough), but allegiance probably does not derive from the Latin phrase ad ligare; that’s a disputed derivation. It’s traced definitively only as far back as Anglo-French.

  • Halrgar

    Sally:

    How preferring words of Germanic stock over ones of Latin stock is racist, I do not know. Neither two have anything to do with races.

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