Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Monday, 24 March 2014

WHAT LANGUAGE SHALL WE WRITE IN? AND WHY? by Gill Stewart




What language shall we write in?  By this I don’t mean, in English or French or Russian.  I mean, within English, how shall we write?  Using literary terms, slang terms, basic every day terms?

To some extent this depends on what you are writing.  A historical novel will of course draw on historical patterns of speech, a YA novel will probably include more slang.  But the novels that I write most often  – women’s contemporary romances – can cover the whole range from literary to light.   
Does it matter what language we use?

It is sometimes claimed that English is the richest language in the world, as it has the most synonyms.  This is because it draws from three distinct linguistic threads – Old English, a Germanic language brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons; Norman French, a Romance language brought by the Norman conquerors in 1066; and Latin which comes to us both via Norman French and directly via it’s widespread use in the church and legal systems.  Very loosely, we can generalise to say that words derived from Old English tend to be popular, those from French literary and those from Latin learned.  So we have the following groups of words (source shown at head of column):
Old English
French
Latin
Rise
Mount
Ascend
Ask
Question
Interrogate
Fast
Firm
Secure
Time
Age
Epoch
You don’t have to know precisely how these words were derived (their etymology,  from the Greek etymologia – the study of the true sense) to know that they have different, although related, meanings.  Looking at these examples, I would say I use those in the first column most, the 2nd column occasionally and the 3rd rarely.  So clearly I don’t write in a literary or learned style!

Probably we end up using the tone and language we are comfortable with, and which seems to fit our writing and our characters.  But it’s actually quite fun to think what words we might have been writing with, had our language developed a little differently.  In the sixteenth century there was great debate about the importing of ‘inkhorn’ or new, consciously literary terms.  Attempts were made to exclude the following:
Scientific
Significative
Refining
Compendious
We can see that they were not completely successful!  If people want to adopt a term they find useful, they will do so no matter what ‘experts’ tell them to do.

Two words I particularly regret the loss of are:
                Uncounsellable (one not able to take advice?) – common in the sixteenth century
                Disquantify (lessen in quantity) – used by Shakespeare.

Whatever words we use, we have to use the ones that work for us.  And if you can’t find the words you want, you can always trawl the lost words of the past – or invent a new one of your own (invent only came into the English language in the fifteenth century, taken from the Latin invenire – to find).  Do you have any favourite words of your own – still in use, once used, or purely invented?

10 comments:

  1. Golly gosh, an erudite post on NPoV! And very interesting, Gill, thanks for this. I shall have to think about it. The first word that comes to mind is sesquipedalian. I've always liked it, and I love its inherent irony. A long-winded word meaning long-winded!

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    1. I love your word too! Not only the irony but the actual sound of it in the mouth.

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  2. Fascinating, Gill. The origin of language is so interesting. I've never thought of putting words into three columns in this way - with your different headings. My word? Lubricious..

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    1. Thanks Joan. Could you please tell me what lubricious means?

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  3. Interesting post, Gill. If you look at poetry you find the best poets use simple Old English rather than more 'poetic' language.

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    1. I hadn't thought of that aspect but I think you're right. When people try to be 'poetic' it doesn't work.

      Any favourite words?

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    1. Yes, you can never have a glut of good words!

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  5. Crumbs.....I'm going to give a lot more thought to the words I put to the page now....:)

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    1. That's what I've been thinking! It's amazing how confusing it can get when you stop and think about a word, its origins, its various meanings... Mmm, could stop me writing altogether!

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