| Woolf Main PageIB Home |

“Dying” to know more about diction? Or are you “expiring”?

Looking at Anglo-Saxon/Germanic versus Latinate Words

The thing to remember about English is that it is a language that has evolved over many, many years and the words in English come from many different places.  Knowing where a word came from is known as etymology.  Studying word origins basically means that you’re looking at the roots and usages of words over long periods of time to see where they came from and how they’ve been adapted.  And now onto the show…

Latinate versus Germanic Diction.

English is an unusual language in that it derives from two main language families, Latinate and Germanic. Its origins are Germanic; in the fourth or fifth century, Old English or Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic dialect, a relative of modern German. (You wouldn't be able to read a word of it without a class in Old English. Here's the first sentence of the most famous Old English poem, Beowulf: "Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,/ þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/ hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon." Yes, that's English. I warned you.) There was a later influx of Scandinavian words when the Vikings arrived, but the Scandinavian languages are also Germanic, so English remained fundamentally Germanic.

The picture changed some time after 1066, when the Normans — French speakers — invaded England. For a few centuries, the peasants continued to speak a Germanic English while the nobles spoke French (a Romance language, derived from Latin). Over time, though, the two vocabularies began to merge; and where Old English speakers and French speakers had only one word each for something, speakers of the new blended English often had two, one based on the Germanic original long used by the peasantry, another based on the French import that had currency in the court. (Later still, a great many words entered the language directly from Latin without stopping along the way at French, and sometimes we have near synonyms from all three origins: kingly [from Germanic könig], royal [from Latin by way of French roy], and regal [directly from Latin rex, regis].)

There's a moral behind this history lesson: even today, a millennium after the Norman Invasion, words often retain connotative traces of their origins. Words of Germanic origin tend to be shorter, more direct, more blunt, while Latinate words tend to be polysyllabic, and are often associated with higher and scientific diction. If you want a memorable example, compare the connotations of shit (from the Germanic scitan) with those of defecate (from the Latin defaecare).

The practical lesson: you'll sound more blunt, more straightforward, even more forthright, if you draw your words from Germanic roots. An extensively Latinate vocabulary, on the contrary, suggests a more elevated level of diction. Choose your words carefully, then, with constant attention to your audience and the effects you want to have on them. [Revised 3 August 2001.]

From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.



In other words, you can either speak plainly (Germanic/Anglo-Saxon)  or you can converse elaborately.

(By the way, if you want to learn more about a word’s origin, just check out the etymology entries at the end of definitions in the dictionary.  They look like this:


[Middle English conversen, to associate with, from Old French converser, from Latin conversr : com-, com- + versr, to occupy oneself; see wer-2 in Indo-European Roots.]


Examples of writing using Germanic/Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words:

    George Orwell attacked the political spinmasters of his day and their use of Latinate words, yet he used them himself for great effects. Look at the passage below from his "Shooting an Elephant," where the Latinate words are in italics and the Germanic are bolded:

   All this was perplexing and upsetting.  For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better.  Theoretically and secretly, of course I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.  As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear.  In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboo so all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.

     Notice how the vivid details are in bold, Germanic, describing "the dirty work of Empire," whereas the Latinate words, in italics, give Orwell's own thoughts about what he saw. Latinate words are here related to thought and reason, the Germanic to the grim, ugly reality of colonialism.

     The next passage is from Jane Austen, in a letter she wrote to an admirer, the Rev. James Stanier Clarke, who pompously had offered himself to her as the subject of her next book  Again, the Latinate words are in italics, the Germanic in bold:

   I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16th.  But I assure you I am not.  The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary.  Such a man's conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving.  A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.

     Notice how the Latinate words are used for the 'ideal' biographer of Rev. Clarke, presumably a man. Ironically, the Germanic words are used for Jane Austen, herself a woman. In the early Nineteenth Century, when Austen was writing, classical languages [e.g., Latin] were the exclusive province of men, who jealously guarded their precinct against any and all women who had intellectual aspirations.

From: http://www.cryptograph.com/orwellausten.htm



Try some “translating.”  Convert the following Germanic-based sentences into Latinate-based words.

  1. I sat like a cat on a mat.
  2. I looked at the bell as it rang.  It was time to go.