A Short History of the English Language

     Nearly all of the inhabitants of Western Europe speak either a Romance language -- i.e., derived from Latin (like French, Italian, Spanish)-- or a Germanic language (like German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages). The Romance languages sound alike, as do the Germanic languages, but the two groups sound very different from each other. They are split geographically as well, with the Latinate languages stretching to the south and west of Europe and the Germanic languages to the north and east. Only in England did the two languages combine, welded together by the fusion of two populations co-existing on the same island. Speakers of Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language, invaded Britain in 449, pushed back the Celts, the previous inhabitants, and settled there permanently. Four centuries later, the Normans, who spoke French, conquered the Anglo-Saxons. The two populations existed side by side, with the aristocrats speaking French and the peasants, Anglo-Saxon, until the fourteenth century, when the two languages coalesced to form English.
     In general, the common words of English are Germanic. The "function words"--prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, demonstratives, etc.--are almost all from the Anglo-Saxon. So are words for actual things and physical actions in the real world. Sir Walter Scott pointed out in Ivanhoe, English has separate words for an animal and the meat of an animal. The French lord would demand boeuf, mouton, or porc; the French for cow, sheep, or pig, which, when cooked, became beef, mutton, or pork. Latinate words had higher status than words from Anglo-Saxon, and this tendency increased during the Renaissance when professional vocabulary entered English from Latin, directly or through the French. Thus, Latinate diction became an indicator of education and, consequently, of social status. Formal speech also tends to be heavily Latinate, because it tends to simulate upper-class speech. Coarse language tends to be Germanic -- almost all the four-letter words, for example, are from the Anglo-Saxon. Social prejudices came to elevate Latinate words over the Germanic ones, but this elevation can be precarious. Latinate words came to be indicators of deceptiveness, found in high density among people who wished to seem upper class, intelligent, or virtuous. Germanic words, on the other hand, often connote frankness and sincerity.
     In his essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell showed the essential difference between Latinate and Germanic words. First, he vividly described three terrible events in predominantly Germanic language. Then he gave Latinate summaries of those events. The Latinate words are purple; the Germanic words are green:

  Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets:  this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. . .Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. . . . The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

     The Germanic words make the reader see cruelty and suffering; the Latinate words remove human beings from the picture. Orwell proved a true prophet about Latinate euphemisms, which are still used today to transform an ugly reality into a bloodless abstraction, a "killer" into a "terminator."
     Latinate words can be misused for deception, but some ugly realities are best left covered over. The dentistís office is an excellent place to find examples of Latinate euphemisms. "Injections" have replaced "shots," and patients feel "discomfort" instead of "pain." Like Orwell's deceivers, dentists use long, Latinate words as a kind of Novocain to detach their patients from what is happening. "Discomfort" does hurt less than "pain" because using that word distances the sufferer from the reality and one can use that distance to become a co-creator of reality, not merely its victim. If you are interested in other examples of Latinate words set against Germanic ones. Click here for other examples.

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