Word Origin Influences Your Writing Voice

By Mark Nichol

When it comes to writing, are you the Anglo-Saxon type, or do you go for French flair? You probably realize that Modern English derives from a wide variety of sources, and perhaps are aware that words derived from French are just as common in our language as those that are descended directly from Old English, otherwise known as Anglo-Saxon.

But did you know that one of the features of English that make it such a rich language is a prevalence, unusual among the world’s languages, of synonyms, thanks to the fact that we have retained words from both Anglo-Saxon and French (and often other languages) that have the same meaning?

And have you considered that whether you choose a word derived from Anglo-Saxon or one borrowed from French or one of its Latinate relatives has a significant bearing on your writing voice?

Thanks to the Norman Conquest, for example, the Anglo-Saxon language became a second-class (or lower-class) tongue in England, supplanted in political and social contexts by Norman French, and therefore many cognates reflect the differences in relations to things between the two classes (who though their languages differed were closely related ethnically).

For example, Anglo-Saxon words for animals raised for food often reflect the role of Anglo-Saxons as keepers of livestock (cow, calf, sheep, pig), whereas the words obtained from French describe the food itself as it appeared on the table after cultivation and preparation by Anglo-Saxon farmers and servants (beef, veal, mutton, pork).

By the same token, many Anglo-Saxon words seem, by comparison with French, more plainspoken — more earthy (or earthly, rather than terrestrial, just as Anglo-Saxon heaven is more basic than the French-based equivalent, celestial). Other cognates that point out the differing perspectives are pairs like the humble home and the magnificent mansion, though often, for every master (French) there is a lord (Anglo-Saxon).

Of course, Anglo-Saxon acquired many words from Latin and its descendants before the Conquest, such as the introduction of many religious terms during the spread of Christianity and the expansion of the language due to trade with other European countries.

Likewise, the Germanic tribes that coalesced into the people of Anglo-Saxon England adopted many Latin and Greek terms before their arrival in Britain. And even after the largely Norman aristocracy abandoned their form of French in favor of Middle English, the latter language acquired many words from the influence of the Renaissance, and early Modern English was likewise enriched by the Enlightenment.

Notice, in your writing, whether you have an affinity with Anglo-Saxon or a French fetish, or whether you are bilingual: Do you give, or present? Do you describe someone as misleading, or deceptive? Do you refer to fatherly, motherly, or brotherly bonds or affection, or paternal, maternal, or fraternal feelings?

Though the number of English words derived from each language is about the same, the ones most essential for basic communication are of Anglo-Saxon origin, and many people correlate heavy use of Latin-derived words with verbosity and overblown language.

What’s your style? Do you worship words from Anglo-Saxon, or do you favor French forms?

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15 Responses to “Word Origin Influences Your Writing Voice”

  • Rufaa Sheikh

    I favour French forms since they inject grandeur and inner beauty rare in the plain Anglo-Saxon.

  • daniel schut

    Interestingly enough, Hindi/Urdu has a similar phenomenon. For example, it has a word of Sanskritic/Prakritic origin for dream, “sapna” which is more lower-caste, and a word of Persian/Mughal origin, ‘khwabon’.

    Even more interesting in this specific example: the words have the same origin, possibly harking all the way back to a proto-indo-iranian language.

  • Francisco Javier

    In speech I usually use plain English (otherwise you might sound pompous or affected). Writing, on the other hand, allows you to create more elaborate messages and this is made possible in great part by using a variety of vocabulary from various sources: Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, Spanish, etc.

    But never overdo it.

  • Dwain Wilder

    I quite agree with your premise that Anglo-Saxon words are sensed, in English, to be more earthy, and have a remarkable impact for that. In my poetry I stay mindful of the differences in impact and tone of the use of these two treasure troves.

    For instance, merely referencing a working knowledge of the sea, the parts of a sailing ship and working its sails, course, and rigging – which are almost entirely Anglo-Saxon – lends a sense of primal work. It isn’t accidental that the starship Enterprise goes into “warp drive” rather than “extreme acceleration.”

  • Marina

    Thanks very much for sharing! ‘Daily Writing Tips’ – is my favorite way to start a day:)
    Today’s post reminded me of a great lecture “A light history of the English language”.
    (The following is my transcript, so I apologize in advance for possible errors)
    “When you talk to people you don’t need to impress intellectually, you speak nothing but Anglo-Saxon German. But when you have to appear intelligent, even though you’re not:), nine times out of ten, you’ll pick a French-Latin word. For example, the word ASK is German, but the word INTERROGATE, which means exactly what ASK does, but makes the science of it, is Latin. The word SWEAT is German, but PERSPIRATION, that doesn’t smell at all, is French-Latin. The word DEER is, of course, German, but when you kill it, put it on the platter and charge $24 for it.. Nobody is going to pay $24 for dead deer.. It’s called VENISON, because that’s French-Latin, and you pay 24 bucks. The work MAD is German, but the word DISCOMBOBULATED is French-Latin. If it’s sophisticated in our language, it’s almost always French-Latin”

  • MT Nickerson

    It’s fantastic, isn’t it, to be a writer, to have the opportunity to alter and change just with the choice of a single word?

    And any article that spawns a Star Trek reference in the comments section has to be a worthwhile article to read. 🙂

  • Steve Johnson

    To be or not to be, that is the ask thing.

  • K

    Another great post.

    Whenever I venture into writing in English, I tend to use Latinate words.

    Considering that (and this “that” is really hard for ‘us’ to drop) I’m Brazilian, I think it is pretty fair, although text and speech almost never sound, how could I put it?, natural.

    C’est la vie.

    One of the most difficult obstacles a Brazilian can face, besides idioms and phrasal/prepositional verbs, is the huge amount of synonyms, especially adjectives and adverbs.

    Another problem is that you guys have specific words for each purpose (I can’t name any right now, but you know what I’m talking about), whether (it be? it is?) a verb or a noun.

    English is an ‘easy-learning’, but ‘tough-using’ and unimaginable (unthinkable? 🙂 ) to master language.

    Feel free to spot and point out my errors (mistakes?).

    Respect from Brasil (that’s how we write it).

  • Daquan Wright

    I just mix it up, I love my language too much to prefer one over another. I want to master the usage of them all. 🙂

    But if I’m writing, what I’ll use is dependent on who I’m writing for. Like when I start my blog, it’ll be a mixture since I’ll be dealing with a quite technical type of audience (but there will still be average folks among my blog as well).

  • AnWulf

    Without frain, I lean towards Anglo-Saxon/Germanic.

    Truthfully, Old English/Anglo-Saxon was third behind French and Latin. The inflow of Latin words weren’t that great before the Conquest and Occupation. Afterwards the inflow became a flood.

    And where did the English king go when he was unthroned by Cromwell? Where else but Paris. When the kingship was put back, there was yet another inflow of Latinates.

    Why brook ‘astronomy’ when there was ‘tungolcraft’?

    You don’t need ‘advice’ when you have ‘rede’.
    Why ‘anticipate’ instead of ‘foresee’ or ‘forethink’? Why did ‘beauty’ take the stead of ‘sheen’ or ‘beautiful’ instead of ‘fair’? … Mirror, mirror on the wall? Who’s the fairest of them all?
    Council over witan.
    Endure over thole.
    Example over byspel … liken to Ger. Beispiel
    Fate over wierd.
    Incense over rekels.
    Question over frain.
    Peace over frith.

    I can go on and on, there are many more … BTW, except for tungolcraft those words are still in the wordbook. They’re just not brooked. Moreover, there are more great words still that can’t be found except in OE or ME wordbooks.

    Scribes and poets (writers and skops [scops]) didn’t often go to English or even to its neighboring Germanic tungs for new words but to to French and Latin … And they went crazy with it!

    England for hundreds of years was nothing more than a cultural outpost of France and it shows in our tongue … and our spelling!

    “Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.” George Orwell “Politics and the English Language” (1946)

  • AnWulf

    Opps, I shouldn’t post when I’m tired! lol

    “The inflow of Latin words weren’t …” should be “wasn’t” and “except” should be “aside”.

  • Peter

    And where did the English king go when he was unthroned by Cromwell? Where else but Paris.

    The king dethroned by Cromwell only went as far as Windsor castle, and not under his own power 🙂

  • AnWulf

    LOL … True for Charles I … But then Cromwell defeated Charles the II who then fled to Paris.

  • Michael Gladkoff, Business Writer

    I prefer using Anglo-Saxon words in business writing. As mentioned, they are usually simpler. George Orwell wrote about this in “Politics and the English Language”, which is available online. But I don’t leave out French and Latin words in my business writing. They add color to business writing and can be used as synonyms when you don’t want to repeat a word.

  • Bakar

    Awesome site. The comments as well as the articles are very informative.
    I have read only 2 articles but learnt many new things so far.

    I agree with Michael Gladkoff. ” Everything in moderation, even moderation it self” as they say.

    Especially, In an age if entrepreneurship and increasing activism. Its is ever so important to connect with the audience, than anything else.

    French/Latin should enrich; without portraying a ‘state-symbol-educated’ twerp. Anglo-Saxon should build rapport; and be used in analogies without appearing like a longwinded, haven’t-a-clue-what-I’m-talking-about buffoon.

    Many great leaders have been good at mixing these two Origins, I remember listening to some of Malcolm X’s speeches in particular.

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