Watch your language


How a bountiful linguistic heritage gives writers options

English is one of the richest languages in the world. Over time Britain has been invaded by the Angles, the Saxons, the Romans, the Vikings, and the Normans, each contributing their native words to our national lexicon. We are one of the few cultures to have a thesaurus, our wide vocabulary giving us the options of synonyms, a luxury other languages don’t have. So the choice for writers is huge.

One of the aspects our multi layered language can help us with is register. If we want to depict someone as being down to earth we might use language with an Old English or Norse (Viking) origin. The Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain in the sixth century gave us basic words for body parts, food and farming. These words are often monosyllabic, such as ‘chest’, ‘hand’ and ‘hair.’  The Vikings, who swept down from the North in the eighth century, gave us words with the letter combination ‘sk’ such as ‘sky’ ‘skill’ and ‘skein.’ These words were also down to earth and usually of one syllable. The Romans, invading in 43 AD, brought us sophistication with win (wine), butere (butter), caese (cheese), piper (pepper), candel (candle), cetel (kettle) and disc (dish). After the Norman conquest in 1066 we acquired 10,000 French words, giving us the potential to be more chic and savoire-faire in our expression.

Knowing the etymology (origin) of words allows us to experiment with register.  For example if I wanted to suggest someone was making an enquiry, I could use the verb ‘ask’ which is Viking and basic, or ‘question’ which is French and therefore sophisticated, or ‘interrogate’ which is Roman and more sinister. Choosing words from the appropriate linguistic base permits us to add shades of meaning and tone to our writing which makes it more subtle and nuanced as a result. A good dictionary gives us origins of words and enables us to choose our linguistic register. This can be a bit clinical and tedious though; often we know instinctively if a word is formal or informal. A good rule of thumb is the more affixes (beginnings and endings such as ‘sub’ ‘ante’ ‘in’ and ‘ary’) the word has, and the more syllables, the more formal it is. Short, basic words sound more colloquial and lower the register.

So we have a lot to thank those historical invaders for – they have made our language one of the most rich and subtle ones around. And that’s a great gift for writers. So a big thank you to our foreign friends (or is that companions or acquaintances?)

StyleGill ThompsonComment