Word Origin Influences Your Writing Voice
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?