Arrant Pedantry

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In the Defense of English

I have always felt that English is a good language. I’m probably fairly biased when it comes to this subject, but I don’t care. English is a colorful and versatile language that readily accepts new borrowings, coinages, and idioms. Its grammar is simple and its vocabulary is broad. It’s also the most influential and widely spoken language in the world at the moment.

So why are we still so infatuated with Latin?

It’s not that I hate Latin; unlike some people, I don’t know it well enough to hate it. But I do know enough to know that Latin has been one of the greatest blessings and worst curses that the English language has ever seen. As you probably know, Latin was the language of scholarship for many years. This led to a huge influx of new words that greatly expanded English vocabulary. Unfortunately, Latin’s great prestige made English look backwards and barbaric by comparison.

The beauty of Latin was in its well-established rules. English—and any other language—was a mess of dialects and differing usages and pronunciations. Of course, the only reason Latin’s rules were so well-established is that it was long dead and fossilized by that time. There were no Latin dialects anymore because those dialects had evolved into full-fledged languages.

The result of this is that Latin rules were often imposed on English by grammarians seeking to turn English into a more enlightened tongue. The worst of these was Bishop Lowth, who took it upon himself to create an English pedagogical grammar textbook. Nearly two hundred fifty years later, we are still stuck with some of his infamous rules, including the prohibitions against split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions—rules that were based on Latin grammar. Ironically, in his own words, he opposed “forcing the English under the rules of a foreign language.”1

The damage done by Latin didn’t end there. Latin words may have enriched English vocabulary, but many of these borrowings were duplicates of English words. The Latin (and French) borrowings took on an elevated status, while the English doublets became cruder by comparison. Consider the following pairs: kingly and regal, house and mansion, heavenly and celestial, get and obtain. The first word in each pair is English, while the second is Latin or French. In each case the Latinate word is loftier. But why? Is Latin intrinsically better? Absolutely not. The Romans may have built an advanced empire, but it was not because their language was any better than the languages of the Gauls or Iberians or Germanic tribes.

More than fifteen hundred years after the fall of Rome, we still consider Romance languages to be beautiful and Germanic languages to be ugly. I say that anyone who believes this has never heard passages of Beowulf read aloud in authentic Old English. The Anglo-Saxons knew how to do things right; when translating from Latin, if they encountered a word that didn’t have an English equivalent, they made one up from English roots. And why shouldn’t they? English was just as legitimate a language as Latin, a language of poetry and scholarship.

I think that in many ways, we’ve forgotten and abandoned the roots of our language. Millions of people still study Latin, but how many study Old English? How many people think that got is just as good as obtained? The sad thing is, most people probably don’t even realize that they’re neglecting their native tongue; they’re too busy falling in love with silly words like defenestrate. Well, let me tell you something: there’s an English word for that, too, and it’s to throw out a window, which is what I’ll want to do next time someone tries to tell me that Latin is better than English.

1 A Short Introduction to English Grammar, 107

13 Responses to In the Defense of English

  1. Nathan says:

    I like English. Most of my favorite television shows are in that language.

    Besides, you can’t go around singing “She’s obtained it. Yeah baby, she’s obtained it” now, can you?

  2. pooka says:

    Girl, you’ve really obtained me now. You’ve obtained my noctural insomnolence.

  3. rivka says:

    I would agree that Latin-root words are not innately better than Germanic-root ones. And I share you dislike of Lowth.

    But many Latin-root words are simply more aesthetic than their counterparts (when they even exist).

    *defenestrates Jonathon* 😛

  4. brozy says:

    Will you hate me if I think Latinates are pretty?

    You know, one of my favorite things about English is that, thanks to the German, French, and Latin, we often have many ways to say something, each with its own connotation giving a slightly different flavor to the idea. For instance, I’m happy to live in a house right now, but in the next life, I’m hoping to abide in a celestial mansion.

  5. Farmgirl says:

    Good article. Wish I had learned Latin. I still have my grandma’s old schoolbooks around, so I guess I could learn some on my own, but I wouldn’t know how to pronounce it right then.

  6. Jon Boy says:

    I’m not saying that Latin isn’t pretty or aesthetic. I just don’t think it’s prettier or more aesthetic than Germanic languages. I think it’s simply a different flavor of beauty.

  7. Derek says:

    This discussion reminds me of Winston Churchill’s famous speech before the Commons in 1940. The climax of the speech:

    “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for the moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old.”

    There are only a few French/Latin root words in there, liberation, surrender, subjugate, maybe a couple others I can’t pick out not being an English major. But Churchill understood that the old Anglo-Saxon words have direct and powerful force that the more scholarly-sounding French/Latin words do not.

  8. Th. says:

    .

    Derek’s right: Anglo words have more punch. And the fact that they are the “less lofty” words isn’t to knock them–I think we should be happy that the local guys are the more friendly and proletarian in our vocabulary.

  9. David Morris says:

    I don’t know if you are still monitoring this post, but I really do have to come to the defence of Bishop Lowth. What he said about stranding prepositions was this: “This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to [er-hmm – he actually *uses* this construction!]; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”
    In other words, it’s very common in spoken English, and perfectly suitable in informal/standard writing. It’s less graceful in formal *style*. Note this well – in this passage, Lowth is not talking about *grammar*; he is talking about *style*. Almost everyone would agree that ‘an Idiom to which our language is strongly inclined’ is a more formal style than ‘an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to’. Whether or not it is more graceful could be a matter of opinion.
    What he said about split infinitives is this: ” “. That is, absolutely nothing. The first proscription of split infinitives came in the middle of the 19th century – almost 100 years after Lowth’s ‘Short Introduction’ was published.
    Lowth’s book really wasn’t about speaking/writing English; it was about speaking/writing English like an Oxford University professor/Church of England bishop.
    You might be interested in http://research.leiden.edu/news/bishop-lowth-was-not-a-fool.html.

  10. Pete says:

    Good article. I agree.

    One point I’d take issue with though, is that the existence of Germanic/Romance doublets like “get”/”obtain” hardly seems like damage. To me the dual vocabulary is a blessing that English. We have two words for almost everything, which is wonderful!

  11. David Morris: In my defense, I wrote this years ago, when I was less informed. 🙂 You’re right that he said nothing about split infinitives, and it’s not even clear that his preposition-stranding rule had anything to do with Latin grammar. Though I have to wonder to what extent “an idiom to which our language is strongly inclined” is formal style precisely because of Lowth and others who have repeated the rule.

    Pete: I wasn’t arguing against having doublets in general, just against the idea that Latin is somehow innately better or more beautiful. Also, I have heard some people say you should never use the word get, and that does seem like damage to me.

  12. Frank says:

    I believe that there is a more concrete explanation for the elitist quality of French and Latin rooted words. The English were conquered by the Normans in the 11th century. During this occupation, the nobility of the land spoke French and wrote their laws in Latin. English was the plain and brutish tongue — spoken only by base subjects and the lowest country lords. Latin and French became associated with the refined and elegant concepts. English described the gritty, ugly ways of life that were left to the lower class. These connotations persisted until they were codified in lexicons and literature, and will probably be with us forevermore.

    • And in my own defense, this is a very old post of mine, and I’m kind of embarrassed by it now. I don’t know why I didn’t mention the simple explanation of politics after the Norman Conquest.

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