The trouble with everything

Friday, December 23, 2005

Insight on the English language

English is really two languages

I wish I’d paid more attention in Linguistics class. I might have learned more than that “schwa” is an elided vowel sound. And I wish I’d done more thinking in History class, because I might have earlier discovered the linguistic significance of the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

Instead, it took an American ex-English teacher, inventor of the slasher film genre, and direct marketing demi-god, to reveal what should have been obvious to me: English is really two parallel languages.

Herschell Gordon Lewis pointed the way in his book, Direct Marketing Copy that Sells! In the chapter “Emotion vs. Intellect”, he writes: “When emotion and intellect come into conflict, emotion always wins.” Then he shows examples: “This is to notify you,” (intellectual) vs. “I’m writing to alert you” (emotional). But the clincher is his table of emotional and intellectual words. Here’s a sample:

Emotional Words to Intellectual Words

speed up -- accelerate
there’s more -- additionally
help -- aid
joke -- anecdote
smart -- astute
eager -- avid
give -- donate
good -- beneficial

By now you get his point: emotional words sell better than intellectual ones because they affect us more strongly. As I scanned Lewis’s much more extensive list, I had one of those ‘Aha!’ moments that occasionally brighten the lives of writers: Most of the words in the emotional list came from the old mother tongue, the Anglo Saxon words of Beowulf. The words in the intellectual list were largely imports from Latin, by way of French, brought over by William the Conqueror, of Normandy.

By 1067 Norman French was the official language of the royal court of England, and the new language was quickly becoming standard among the Anglo Saxon nobles (those who hadn’t been slain or run off their lands) and was being adopted by anybody with ambitions around William’s court. But the old language never died out. It stayed alive in the language of ordinary people and slowly absorbed the new one until, by the 14th Century, we had an English language we could begin to recognize—the language of Geoffrey Chaucer. His “Canterbury Tales begins:

“Whanne that Aprille with hes shoures soote the drochte of March hath perced to the roote...”

In case you need a hand, in modern-day, poetical English we’d probably say something like: “When April’s sweet showers have pierced the drought of March to the root...”.

Having two languages in one gives us a richness of choice that I doubt exists in other languages (and this is not an assertion of the superiority of English). We can say:

“The erection of bona fide boundaries (of lignaceous or petraceous composition) are essential to the maintenance of orderly vicinage.”

Or we may simply assert: “Good fences make good neighbours.”

We can say: “A surfeit suffices.”

Or we can get down to earth with: “Enough is enough!”

We can put a severed horse head in your bed to soften you up for our irrecusable offer. We can be pedantic, or we can teach. We can use a rain gauge, or a pluviometer.

We can be aperient, or we can take a shit.