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