This article is not intended to be a grammar lesson. Instead, I want this to call attention to something I found fascinating. Since researching word origins, it has educated my word choice while writing to have a stronger intention.
I strongly advocate writing with intention. It’s the same way I believe you need to understand the rules so that you can break them. With this post, I’m hoping to add one more tool to your belt to help you make more intentional choices with your writing.
Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate
Your first question when reading the title of this article might be, what’s the difference between Anglo-Saxon and Latinate?
A super quick google search will tell you this:
Anglo-Saxon words come from the languages spoken by Germanic settlers arriving in England from the fifth century. Latinate words derive from the British Isles’ interactions with the Roman Empire and later medieval France. Today, the English language is a mercurial mix of the two.
A quick history lesson may be required. To break it down simply, there was a period in English history when the language of the upper class was significantly influenced by the French, thereby Latin, language. While the lower class spoke Old English, which has primarily German influences.
Therefore, words of Latinate origin were the language of aristocrats and intellectuals. When using only Latinate words, words come off as scholarly and sophisticated.
Examples of Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate words
If you need help differentiating the two, remember “short for Saxon, long for Latin.”
It can affect the tone of the piece
Word choice will heavily impact the tone of your writing. As the examples have shown, the meaning of the words is the same. Yet, when we select one word over another, we are making a choice in the tone we wish to establish.
Paying closer attention to word choice can help you fine-tune your writing,
Balance is the key to life
If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million more times: the key to life is balance. Too much of one thing is never a good thing (usually).
Modern English vocabulary breaks down to 60% Latinate, and 25% Anglo-Saxon, with the rest being a mix of several other global influences. By that breakdown, you’ll automatically have a mix by using the regular English you already know. You will establish narratives and characters that are easier to connect to by striking a balance, as that is what we are most accustomed to. But you may wish to mix things up to create unique character voices and tones.
Word Choice Impacts the Tone
When you modulate that balance, it will shift the tone. Anglo-Saxon words have hard sounds like —CK or the hard “g.” Latinate words are softer, flowery, and more musical. Anglo-Saxon words are also more concrete, which makes them easier to picture.
Consider the difference between light (Anglo-Saxon) and illumination (Latinate), or burn (Anglo-Saxon) and incinerate (Latinate). Latin words are often more nuanced and precise. Consider fight (Anglo-Saxon) and altercation (Latinate).
Selecting either more Anglo-Saxon or Latinate words can be helpful for characterization. Writing with an abundance of Latinate words will usually sound posher and more proper while writing with more Anglo-Saxon is more direct. This can shift voice, tone, and readability.
Latinate: Enjoy your adolescence; the labor of your elder years is exhausting.
Anglo-Saxon: Be happy you’re young; working when you’re old makes you tired.
Choose words with intent
While I only provided a lighter overview of the etymology, I’d like to emphasize once more the importance of intention in your word choice. To do that, you need an understanding of the tone you wish to establish. Then, select words that support that tone.
The established tone will emphasize considerations like emotional stakes, action, reflection, and characterization. You want all aspects to work harmoniously together in order to portray the narrative as accurately to the reader as it lives in your imagination.
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