Linguistic purism in English
Linguistic purism in the English language is the belief that words of native origin should be used instead of foreign-derived ones (which are mainly Latinate and Greek). "Native" (inborn) can mean "Anglo-Saxon" (Engelsaxish) or it can be widened to include all Germanic (Theedish) words. In its mild form, it merely means using existing native words instead of foreign-derived ones (such as using begin instead of commence). In its more extreme form, it involves reviving native words that are no longer widely used (such as ettle for intend) and/or coining new words from Germanic roots (such as wordstock for vocabulary). The resulting language is sometimes called Anglish (coined by the author and humorist Paul Jennings), Roots English (referring to the idea that it is a "return to the roots" of English), among other names. The mild form is often advocated as part of Plain English, but the more extreme form has been and continues to be a fringe movement.
English linguistic purism is discussed by David Crystal in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. The idea dates at least to the inkhorn term controversy of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Barnes advocated linguistic purism and tried to introduce words like birdlore for ornithology and bendsome for flexible. A notable supporter in the 20th century was George Orwell, who advocated what he saw as plain Saxon words over complex Latin or Greek ones, and the idea continues to have advocates today.
Old English and Middle English
Old English adopted a small number of Greco-Roman loan words from an early period, especially in the context of Christianity (church, bishop, priest). From the 9th century (Danelaw) it borrowed a much larger number of Old Norse words, many for every-day terms (skull, egg, skirt).
After the Norman conquest of 1066–71, the top level of English society was replaced by people who spoke Old Norman (a Romance language closely related to Old French). It evolved into Anglo-Norman and became the language of the state. Hence, those who wished to be involved in fields such as law and governance were required to learn it (see "Law French" for example).
It was in this Middle English period that the English language borrowed a slew of Romance loan words (via Anglo-Norman) – see "Latin influence in English". However, there were a few writers who tried to withstand the overbearing influence of Anglo-Norman. Their goal was to provide literature to the English-speaking masses in their vernacular or mother tongue. This meant not only writing in English, but also taking care not to use any words of Romance origin, which would likely not be understood by the readers. Examples of this kind of literature are the Ormulum, Layamon's Brut, Ayenbite of Inwyt, and the Katherine Group of manuscripts in the "AB language".
Early Modern English
In the 16th and 17th centuries, controversy over needless foreign borrowings from Latin and Greek (known as "inkhorn terms") was rife. Critics argued that English already had words with identical meanings. However, many of the new words gained an equal footing with the native Germanic words, and often replaced them.
I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.
In reaction, some writers tried either to resurrect older English words (gleeman for musician, sicker for certainly, inwit for conscience, yblent for confused) or to make new words from Germanic roots (endsay for conclusion, yeartide for anniversary, foresayer for prophet). However, few of these words remain in common use.
A noted advocate of English linguistic purism was 19th-century English writer, poet, minister, and philologist William Barnes, who sought to make scholarly English easier to understand without a classical education. Barnes lamented the "needless inbringing" of foreign words; instead using native words from his own dialect and coining new ones based on Old English roots. These included speechcraft for grammar, birdlore for ornithology, fore-elders for ancestors and bendsome for flexible. Another 19th-century poet who supported linguistic purism was Gerard Manley Hopkins. He wrote in 1882, "It makes one weep to think what English might have been; for in spite of all that Shakespeare and Milton have done [...] no beauty in a language can make up for want of purity".
Bad writers—especially scientific, political, and sociological writers—are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.
A contemporary of Orwell, the Australian composer Percy Grainger, wrote English with only Germanic words and called it "blue-eyed English". For example, a composer became a tonesmith. He also used English terms instead of the traditional Italian ones as performance markings in his scores, e.g. 'louden lots' instead of 'molto crescendo'.
In 1966, Paul Jennings wrote a number of articles in Punch, to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Norman conquest. These articles posed the question of what England would be like had it not happened. They included an example of what he called "Anglish", such as a sample of Shakespeare's writing as it might have been if the conquest had failed. He gave "a bow to William Barnes".
In 1989, science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote a text about basic atomic theory called Uncleftish Beholding. It was written using only words of Germanic origin, and was meant to show what English scientific works might look like without foreign borrowings. In 1992, Douglas Hofstadter jokingly referred to the style as "Ander-Saxon". This term has since been used to describe any scientific writings that use only Germanic words.
Anderson used techniques including:
- extension of sense (motes for 'particles');
- calques, i.e., translation of the morphemes of the foreign word (uncleft for atom, which is from Greek a- 'not' and temnein 'to cut')
- calques from other Germanic languages like German and Dutch (waterstuff from the German Wasserstoff / Dutch waterstof for 'hydrogen'; sourstuff from the German Sauerstoff / Dutch zuurstof for 'oxygen');
- coining (firststuff for 'element'; lightrotting for 'radioactive decay').
Another approach, without a specific name-tag, can be seen in the September 2009 publication How We'd Talk if the English had Won in 1066, by David Cowley (the title referencing the Battle of Hastings). This updates Old English words to today's English spelling, and seeks mainstream appeal by covering words in five steps, from easy to "weird and wonderful", as well as giving many examples of use, drawings and tests.
- Paul Jennings, "I Was Joking Of Course", London, Max Reinhardt Ltd, 1968
- Poul Anderson, "Uncleftish Beholding", Analog Science Fact / Science Fiction Magazine, mid-December 1989.
- Douglas Hofstadter (1995). "Speechstuff and Thoughtstuff". In Sture Allén (ed.). Of Thoughts and Words: Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 92. London: Imperial College Press. ISBN 1-86094-006-4. Includes a reprint of Anderson's article, with a translation into more standard English.
- Douglas Hofstadter (1997). Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-08645-4. Also includes and discusses excerpts from the article.