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