Sunday 13 December 2015

Corollary to A Note on Latin Phrases

The morning after A Note on Latin Phrases was posted, an article dropped into my feed reader with the serendipitous timing that normally occurs when you find your lost wallet just as you finish cancelling the final credit card it contained. McWhorter's erudite and deeply engrossing homily to the mongrel that is the English language conjures an image of a hotch-potch of invaders, nouveaux speakers and gnarled locals mangling the mother tongue time and again until it loses a single family resemblance and becomes a child of most of Northern Europe.

The overlay of one language on another, with the resultant twisting and changing and joining of the vocabulary and grammar, is followed by the overlaying of another, and another, intertwined with pockets of native resistance and other languages that become, briefly or otherwise, bedfellows with our increasingly individual and unrecognisable language.  This commingling and inbreeding leads to English's - apparently well-deserved - reputation for illogic and difficulty of mastery.

But aside from being a fine read (and I whole-heartedly recommend reading it) McWhorter has provided a mine of interesting gems about the effect of Latin on the English language, hence the poor timing for me.  I would have gladly folded in some quotes, but, alas, I clicked Publish too soon.  You'll just have to read the article yourselves, but here are a few points of interest:

"[S]tarting in the 16th century, educated Anglophones developed a sense of English as a vehicle of sophisticated writing, and so it became fashionable to cherry-pick words from Latin to lend the language a more elevated tone."

"One result was triplets allowing us to express ideas with varying degrees of formality. Help is English, aid is French, assist is Latin. Or, kingly is English, royal is French, regal is Latin – note how one imagines posture improving with each level: kingly sounds almost mocking, regal is straight-backed like a throne, royal is somewhere in the middle, a worthy but fallible monarch."

"Nevertheless, the Latinate invasion did leave genuine peculiarities in our language. For instance, it was here that the idea that ‘big words’ are more sophisticated got started. .... The English notion that big words are fancier is due to the fact that French and especially Latin words tend to be longer than Old English ones – end versus conclusion, walk versus ambulate."
So, if you want to know why there is an air of the common man about exhortations to "Never use a long word where a short word will do", it's because longer words are associated with Latin, the language for a long time of the only educated man in the village: the priest.  Shorter words are, quite literally, more Anglo-Saxon, and associated as such with the less educated.  If you want to be understood by the widest possible audience, you use the most commonly understood language, and that is not Latin.

(In light of this and the previous post on Latin phrases, comments on the irony of my gratuitous over-use of adjectives and long sentences on this blog are more than welcome.)

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