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The Norman Conquest and Linguistic Purism

950 years ago today, the Battle of Hastings (and the greater Norman Conquest) changed the English language forever. In 1066, the childless King of England died, and his throne was fought over by his brother-in-law and a distant cousin named William who lived in Normandy, France. In the end William conquered, and that French-speaking Norman became the next King of England.

Naturally the little people of England, whose lives rarely intersected with nobility, continued speaking their particular brand(s) of English, but Norman French quickly became the language of the aristocracy, and that French influence changed English forever. The days of Old English were done, and our language soon entered its awkward ‘tween phase, Middle English.

Anglish and English Purism

Though French was what the upper classes spoke, Latin was the language for learned people. Latin was the lingua franca of academia, science and theology for millennia: Universities taught in Latin so that students from all over could understand their lectures, scientists wrote papers in Latin, and the Catholic church didn’t stop using Latin until Vatican II: Electric Boogaloo in the 1960s.

For this reason even today English speakers find that words of Latin origin ‘just sound smarter’, but in 1946 George Orwell argued against this misconception in his essay, “On Politics and the English Language“. Though Orwell says, “Bad writers…are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones”, he advises that writers “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

Some have taken this idea a bit further though. In 1854, English poet and philologist William Barnes said that “purity is deemed a good quality of languages, inasmuch the purer a language is, the more regular it is in clippings and breath-sounds and in the forms of its words and sentences; and the more readily it is learnt and understood.” Barnes suggested that we not only switch Latin words for Saxon ones (undersea instead of submarine or freedom instead of liberty), but that we sometimes coin new words to replace the Latin-derived ones: Take, for instance, bendsome for fexible or sun-print for photograph.

If sun-print sound silly to you, then consider the fact that this is the literal meaning of photograph. We have been conditioned as English speakers to assume that words of Latin or Greek origin ‘just sound better’, but why should sun-print in English sound any sillier than ‘sun-print’ in Greek?

Recent pursuits into English purism have given rise to a language lovingly referred to as Anglish which speculates on how we’d talk if the English had won in 1066. Some Anglish users insist “the best words are short, the short words are Saxon” while others promote an English “with many fewer words borrowed from other tongues“, but it is the perfectly readable Roots English which stresses the importance of “still writing in a way which is meaningful and can be understood.

Some people challenge that last sentiment though. In 1989, science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote an essay on atomic theory entirely in Anglish called “Uncleftish Beholdings“. The essay offers an interesting case study on how contemporary concepts might be characterized in an English expunged of Latin influences and replaced with Germanic ones. Uncleft (that is, ‘unbroken’) is the Germanic equivalent of atom (literally ‘the unbroken particle‘), and -ish is a Germanic equivalent of the Greek suffix -ic. Beholdings is a Germanic equivalent for the Latin-derived theory. You can try to read Anderson’s essay if you’d like, but to be honest, it’s not far from nonsense.

Of course, as with any kind of purification, the pursuit of English purism is ultimately impossible—there are just too many new words we don’t have pre-1066 equivalents for. There are also too many old words that have since become foreign to our modern ears, but if we stress Orwell’s rule for “everyday English”, Anglish can still be practical.

As Robert Lane Greene of The Economist notes, this “over-literal” composition of English words allows your average English speaker to ‘pop the hood’ on their own language and actually understand how the machine works. Linguistics (or wordlore) becomes a tool not only for academics but for common people. This is the same sentiment HW Fowler argued for when he expressed his preference for fall over autumn in The King’s English. Fowler said fall is “short, Saxon…picturesque”, but most importantly, “it reveals its derivation to every one who uses it, not to the scholar only”. That is the goal of English purism: an open-source language.

English Is Not the Language of Poetry

Though it was Geoffrey Chaucer who, in the 1300s, first made it cool to write in English, even he borrowed heavily from Italian and Latin influences like Ovid, Boccaccio and Dante. Certainly stealing from the greats is a proven writing tactic, but English literary traditions seem to have been lost in favor of these foreign traditions.

Take for instance, the translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. In the Italian epic, Dante employs rhyming so complexly layered and expertly woven that it is “almost impossible to manage in English, because our language…has so few rhymes“, but in Italian is “too easy…to be thought a technical challenge“. Dante’s rhyming is natural, graceful and elegant in Italian rather than the macho posturing it would appear when translated to English.

In comparison, alliteration, consonance and assonance are stupid-easy to do in English, but they still enjoy a rich history that goes back to the earliest of English literature. Nonetheless, alliteration is often considered an affectation to be avoided, good for nothing better than crafting punny headlines on Yahoo!News. Though, for an example of how elegant alliteration can be, look at the poem “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (also a proponent of linguistic purism):

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

Hopkins’s poem is relentless in its alliteration, but it is neither goofy, hokey nor hackneyed. It actually creates physical pleasure when reciting; the poem feels good on the tongue! I don’t say that we should stop rhyming (you’ll notice even the poem above employs a rhyme scheme) but perhaps we should show a greater appreciation for those poems that chose not to rhyme.

So Who Cares?

Since 1066, English learners (and speakers) have struggled with our hodgepodge language that over the centuries has rolled across the Earth like a linguistic katamari ball collecting up foreign words and grammars in its path. Certainly this makes for a complex language and fascinating case study for those who care about such things, but I think there’s something to be said for recognizing a language’s native strengths as well, rather than fussing about with inkhorn terms, Latin abbreviations and those demmed split infinitives! There’s no point in forcing other people’s rules onto a language that’s just fine the way it is, thank you very much. Personally, I say split those infinitives, baby. Romance is for suckers.