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Marginal Notes

Forthwringing Tonguishness


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A client recently asked me why English is so bizarre. She was trying to explain its quirks to a precocious, bi-lingual eight-year-old, and not doing very well. Not that I did much better – English is a genuinely freaky language, with random spelling rules, no particular sentence structure, and far more words than any reasonable language needs. Part of the reason it’s so confused is that it’s perfectly happy to steal useful words from just about anywhere it can get them, from Hindi (“shampoo”) to Tshiluba, one of the languages of the Congo (“chimpanzee”).

But the root of English strangeness comes from the way it was formed when two sources of language flowed together. Old English originally grew out of Anglo-Saxon, which is more-or-less Germanic. Then Old English was conquered literally and figuratively by Norman French, which was still fairly close to Latin at the time. As a result (outcome), English at its heart (essentially) has at least two words (expressions) for every concept (thought), one from each of its two mother streams (foundations) of language.

While this hot mess of a history makes English hard to use, it does give writers a chance to control how their work feels just by picking which source they draw their language from. Short, consonant-packed words grounded in Anglo-Saxon have strength and punch, while longer, vowel-infused Latinate derivatives feel more cerebral and anemic. There’s a reason all of the most effective obscenities come from Old English. Calling someone a coprophagous, copulating, progeny of a female canine just lacks . . . spunk.

Consider the list of typical adjectives above (thanks to Ben Blatt of Slate). Note that five of J. K. Rowling’s adjectives have their roots directly in Anglo-Saxon, and some of the others (“famous,” “magical”), while Latin at heart, are still brief and punchy. Seven out of Stephanie Meyers’ ten, on the other hand, are polysyllabic, vowel-enriched Latin. This helps explain why the Harry Potter world has an earthier, friendlier feel compared to the Twilight Saga. (Ms. Collins’ Hunger Games books fall in between on both counts.)

Or consider the following passage:

The elements consist of particles called atoms. These are extremely small; one gram of hydrogen contains on the order of 2 X 10[22] of them. Most atoms combine to form what are called molecules. Thus the hydrogen molecule contains two hydrogen atoms, the oxygen molecule contains two oxygen atoms, etc. (Some elements, such as helium, remain uncombined; others, such as iron, form crystals in their natural state, and there are further possible combinations.)

Ordinary, somewhat dull, high school atomic theory, right? Now try this version:

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mightily small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.)

Suddenly the passage sounds like something from the eldritch scrolls of ancient wisdom.

The second version is drawn from "Uncleftish Beholding,” an essay in which Poul Anderson translates common scientific terms from their Greek or Latin roots into their Anglo-Saxon equivalents – creating what Douglas Hofstadter dubbed “Ander-Saxon.” The information is literally identical. The feel of the passage is completely transformed.

But there’s more at stake than the feel of your language. Paying attention to the source of your vocabulary gives you control over the pace of your sentences. Even if you are using the same number of words, shorter, Anglo-Saxon ones make your writing feel like it’s moving more quickly. “This isn’t exactly what I envisioned would occur,” takes longer to get through than, “This isn’t quite what I thought would happen.”

Note that the second example also feels looser and more authentic – more like something someone would say in conversation. As we say in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, all dialogue is a formal construct. The trick is to hide the formality – to make it seem natural and flowing. Choosing words rooted in Anglo-Saxon helps you do that.

Which stream you draw your language from is a powerful tool for character creation, as well. More educated characters tend toward Latinate terms in general. It was, after all, the language of science, medicine, philosophy, and law for centuries, and still infects the jargon of these professions and the people exposed to it. If you push the use of Latin roots to the point of self-consciousness, your characters come across as pretentious even if readers aren’t consciously aware of how they’re using language. On the other hand, simpler, less ostentatious words often convey the sense of simpler, and often more likable, characters.

So if you want to loosen up your dialogue, control how your readers see your characters, or just make your fictional world feel a little less bloodless, pay attention to where your language comes from. Lean toward words that have found their home in English for a millennium or more, and your language will become more expressive.

Or, in Ander-Saxon, your toungishness will wax forthwringing.