Chapter 1: Introduction

§5. The Unique Nature of English

As we shall see in later chapters, the English language has had a most unusual history, having been subjected over the centuries (like the British Isles themselves) to waves of foreign influence. On account of this historical diversity, English is magnificently supplied with the raw material of words, often having several synonyms for a single concept. Because the grammatical structure of the language is Germanic, the functional linking words (prepositions, conjunctions, and articles) are solidly Germanic: to, from, and, but, however, when, since, the, an. So are the most common everyday nouns, verbs, and adjectives—for example, words for family relationships (mother, father, sister, brother), for number concepts (one, two, ten, hundred); and for fundamental aspects of daily life (house, home, bread, water, hay, harvest, cow, horse, sun, moon; eat, drink, talk, laugh, make love; good, bad, old, young). Not all Anglo-Saxon vocabulary is limited to words of one or two syllables; but we seldom have any problem understanding the longer Germanic forms, such as wonderful, womanhood, lighthearted, nevertheless, overwhelmingly, and unfriendliness.

Alongside this huge stock of native words, one finds at least an equal number of Latin (and/or Greek) loan-words, which entered English at various stages in its evolution. These can be very simple in form and obvious in meaning: mile, wine, cheese, city, school, church, farm, joy, grief, nice, fine, poor. (Here we see proof that not all short, blunt words are Anglo-Saxon.) Some common English words are spelled exactly as they were in the Latin of Julius Caesar: area, focus, actor, index, forum, consensus, data, item, video, referendum. Many others have been adapted to English morphology, but still clearly reveal their classical origins. As a general rule, words of this type tend to be longer than their Anglo-Saxon fellows, and they may often be learned or scholarly: desiccated, exiguous, refulgent, concatenation. Unless we have some knowledge of Latin roots, these may strike us as exotic aliens, polysyllabic and obscure.[1] When they are used skilfully and appropriately, Latin and Greek loan-words can vastly enrich our speech and writing, providing greater clarity and precision, adding subtle connotations that extend the boundaries of meaning, or creating images that could not otherwise be expressed. Unfortunately, the classical vocabulary in English is particularly subject to abuse, for these loan-words are the stock in trade of pedants, posers, and propaganda artists—indeed, of all who avoid plain language in order to hide or bend the truth.

The dual heritage of English, Anglo-Saxon and Latin, has given the language a great many LEARNED VARIANTS, synonyms that offer more scholarly, polite, or devious alternatives for ordinary concepts. Sometimes the variant may be needed in order to avoid any risk of ambiguity—in scientific and medical usage, for instance. In other contexts, the learned variant may be coy or pretentious. Here we meet the sub-class of EUPHEMISMS, expressions that stem from a desire to cloak ugly or embarrassing concepts in less offensive language. Consider the following pairs, where the blunt Anglo-Saxon word is followed by a more refined Latin counterpart:

work labo(u)r smell odo(u)r, fragrance
sweat perspire spit expectorate
chew masticate drool salivate
piss urinate shit defecate
begin commence end terminate
break fracture stitch suture
womb uterus balls testicles

Quite deliberately, this list is a mixed bag. Some of the variants offer only a minor elevation in tone; others enable us to avoid a crude expression or a downright obscenity. (Almost all our English swear words are Anglo-Saxon.[2] Several of the less down-to-earth alternatives are clearly medical terms or technical jargon—does anyone ever expectorate outside the Baseball Rulebook? Still others, like commence and terminate, belong to the world of bureaucratic doublespeak. As a class, learned variants cannot be given blanket approval or condemnation; their appropriateness depends on the situation and the context.

The English language has often adapted Latin adjectives to fill an obvious need, where a simple Germanic noun has no suitable adjectival form. A case in point is suggested by the pair of synonyms listed above—work and labor. To find an English word that means “full of work” or “involving work,” we must resort to the Latin-derived laborious, because there is no workful or worksome or workly. Although there is a Germanic smelly—not to mention stinking—the connotations are negative; if we want an adjective to describe a pleasant “scent” (Latin) or “aroma” (Greek), we can use odorous or fragrant.

Compare these four Germanic nouns with their Latin adjectival companions:

 sun  solar  moon  lunar
 earth  terrestrial  sky  celestial

Astronomers and space scientists would be lost without the Latin forms. Of course, we do have the Germanic adjectives sunny and earthy (as well as earthly); but they are very different in meaning from solar and terrestrial.

What percentage of English vocabulary is derived from Latin and Greek? There is really no easy answer to that question, because it makes a big difference whether we are talking about all the words in a huge dictionary (including the highly technical jargon of science and medicine), or the words that an educated person would recognize in reading, or the words that most of us use in daily conversation. Some idea of the debt can be gained from the following crude estimate: of the 20,000 most common words in English, approximately half (10,000 words) are derived from Latin, either directly or through French. A much lower number (but at least 2,000) can be traced back to Greek.

To say that roughly half our standard vocabulary is Latin does not mean that half the words in any given sentence will be Latin. That is because the plain and simple Germanic words are used far more frequently; there may well be two or three occurrences of a word like the or and in the same sentence. Any writer whose Latin word frequency is above 30%, even in a short passage, is likely to be writing complex or technical English.

Let us try a little experiment, analyzing a few sample passages of English in order to test actual practice.

If we are communicating with children, we naturally use words that are short and easily understood. These are likely to be of Anglo-Saxon origin:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Latin derivatives are not all long and learned. The lone specimen in this little verse could hardly be less exotic: it is the plain-sounding wall, which came into the English language at a very early date.

See if you can spot the three non-Germanic words in this nursery rhyme:

Hey, diddle, diddle!
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

You will agree, I think, that the alien words are well disguised. One of them, believe it or not, is cat, which is probably derived from Late Latin cattus. The other non-Germanic words are sport and dish—the last an interesting example, because the original source was the Greek diskos (δίσκος), which became the Latin discus (our word discus, and the source also of English disc or disk). For our present purposes, we can say that dish is derived from Latin. If it isn’t too ponderous to apply statistics to Mother Goose, let us note that the frequency of Latin vocabulary in “Hey, diddle, diddle” is 10% (3 words out of 30).

In the great tradition of plain English style, best represented by the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible, Latin vocabulary is about as infrequent as in Mother Goose. Here is that 1611 version of the Twenty-third Psalm, with the Latin words highlighted in bold type:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

In this clear and beautiful piece of English prose, the Latin frequency is 9.3% (11 words out of 118)—almost identical to that of our nursery rhyme. William Shakespeare, who was still alive when the King James Bible was published, had a similar preference for plain Anglo-Saxon diction, despite his enormous vocabulary. His famous Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) has a Latin frequency of only 11.4 % (13 words out of 114); in florid theatrical passages, his Latin frequency may run to 20% or more.

John Bunyan (1628-1688) was profoundly influenced by the English Bible; one can hardly imagine simpler language than the opening paragraph of Pilgrim’s Progress:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?”

Here Bunyan’s Latin frequency is exactly 10% (11 words out of 110 ).

In contrast, let us consider a selection from a great nineteenth-century stylist, Samuel Taylor Coleridge:[3]

As the result of all my reading and meditation, I abstracted two critical aphorisms, deeming them to comprise the conditions and criteria of poetic style; first, that not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry. Second, that whatever lines can be translated into other words of the same language, without diminution of their significance, either in sense, or association, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious in their diction. (Biographia Literaria, 1817)

In this passage, which is obviously worlds removed from Pilgrim’s Progress in purpose and tone, the combined frequency of Latin and Greek vocabulary is 31.9% (29 out of 91 words). The classical density of Coleridge’s prose is over three times that of Bunyan.

You may find even higher frequencies in a modern textbook or technical treatise. Here, for example, is a job advertisement that appeared in a recent national publication:

Page 12
* Although Alberta is Teutonic in origin, the name of the Province has a Latin form

At a whopping 44.2% frequency (23 words out of 52), the passage proves that Latin and Greek derivatives are alive and well in contemporary English. But this is hardly a typical piece of English prose. In standard, non-technical writing, most good stylists today try not to sound too heavy and academic. Precise and unusual Latin words will be far more effective if they are met in plain Anglo-Saxon surroundings.


  1.   We shall meet a delicious label that is applied facetiously to words of this type—the Latin derivative “sesquipedalian.”
  2.   Exceptions are hard to find. Bastard is from Late Latin, through Old French. The plain-sounding turd, a four-letter classic, is a surprising Latin derivative. During the rebellious 1960s, there was a rather silly campaign to make all obscenities acceptable in “polite” everyday usage. Luckily the cause was doomed to failure, or we might now find ourselves speechless at moments of great stress.
  3.   Latin derivatives are here shown in bold type, Greek derivatives in bold italic.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

§5. The Unique Nature of English by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book