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Practical insights for writers from author and developmental editor Jessica Morrell

Word by Word: Is Anglo-Saxon the answer?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 13•18

We had our first significant rain since June on Tuesday and yesterday a rattling, loud downpour smashed down along with thunder and lightning and made you grateful for your roof. Phew. As you can imagine, nothing is more welcome during wildfire season. I’ve also got friends and family in the path of Hurricane Florence, so like many people, I am weather-obsessed these days.

I’ve been working on projects about the tools of writing–solid nouns, words that resonate, verbs that power sentences. As I’m working I’m scribbling and underlining in every novel and article I read, analyzing authors’ techniques, and building words lists. My idea of fun. And I’m reading a translation of Beowulf by Seamus Heaney. Beowulf was written in about the eighth century and it’s been years,  make that decades, since I tackled it.  Back then when my eyes were younger I read the original. The basic story is about a hero defeating three monsters and then dying. Heaney’s translation is laden with footnotes, printed in small typeface, contains photographs, and essays written by experts.  Next I’m hoping to compare it with Tolkien’s translation and reread The Canterbury Tales because I want to wallow in Old English.  Well, actually Chaucer lives in the fourteenth century so his language is called Middle English.

Since I began teaching I’ve been advising writers to lean on words of Anglo-Saxon origin, but lately I’ve been revisiting this concept. One problem with this advice is that there aren’t that many of these words still in use.  The English language, or Old English, originated from Germanic tribes in northern Europe who invaded Britain between the fifth and seventh century. It was mostly a spoken language and Britain was populated with Celts though Roman influences still lingered. The Anglo-Saxon impact lasted about 600 years. The  Vikings raided and settled in parts of England and brought Old Norse, also a Germanic language, between the eighth and eleventh century.

The Norman Conquest  in 1066 and the conquerors brought William as king and Old French.  French is a romance language with roots in Latin and borrowings from the Greeks. It was also called Romance English. Old French began dying out in England and was replaced by Middle English from about 1100 to 1500.

English has always been an adaptive, vital language and was influenced by the King James Bible, the Renaissance which flooded the language with new words, and Shakespeare, who added more than 4,000 words and phrases. Modern English and American English in particular  resulted from borrowings, gleanings, and adaptations–a mongrel language. Which is one reason why you’ll find a list of synonyms for many words.

But words of Anglo-Saxon origin have always been considered more down-to-earth and concrete. They’ve also been considered more working class, crude, and simple.  Words of French (and Latin) origin are considered softer, elevated,  elegant and sometimes pompous. For example:

Anglo-Saxon                            French

  1. gut                                         intestine
  2. fire                                         flame
  3. ghost                                     phantom
  4. buy                                        purchase
  5. earthly                                   terrestrial
  6. stench                                   odour
  7. heaven                                  celestial
  8. wild                                       savage

So how is a writer to choose? Generally opt for punchy, potent, and plain diction. Old English makes readers pay attention. It is typically literal as in ‘bone house’ for the human body. Or ‘whale road’ as one word that describes the sea.  Anglo Saxon words are leaner, single syllable words that are:

  • terse
  • easier to read
  • punchier
  • less formal
  • ‘of the body’

Examples: blood, sweat, tears, toil, stone, wood, bless, wish

French and Latin words are usually

  • formal
  • more abstract
  • harder to read
  • multisyllabic
  • ‘of the mind’

Examples: Excrement, intercourse, cogitate, enquire, imbibe

But, and this is an important but; it all depends on voice, tone, and purpose. Is your viewpoint character a professor or modern-day Huck Finn?  Is  your character 55 or 12? Are you writing for kids or adults? Humorous tone or deadly serious?

Rely on Anglo-Saxon if you’re writing: picture books, YA, humor, adventure, thrillers, fantasy. Use it when you want to reveal emotions and get into your character’s body.

Rely on French or Latin origin words if you’re writing: romance (cherish, desire, infatuation),nonfiction, science fiction (alien, dystopia, alchemy) technical writing and documents.

It’s always helpful to know a word’s etymology. And you’d be silly to omit the offerings of Yiddish (chutzpah, glitch, schmooze), Italian ( facade, vista, replica, bizarre) or Old Norse (dazzle, ransack, berzerk). So many treasures, endless tools.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, collect words

Bonus: A link to the prose style of George R. R. Martin.

Fun bonus: From The Guardian, writers on words they love best.

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