Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Careful Use of Latin

Hot on the heels of the idea that the message is affected by the medium comes the notion that word choices in English are also going to affect your voice as a writer. If you want to write novels, word choice is an essential skill to master.

The English language evolved over centuries, but was mainly created by the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Famously, the Normans beat the Saxons and so over the next few decades they proceded to turn the latter into a conquered people. This eventually led to the welding together of a Germanic language known as Old English and the Latin-based Norman French. It has left today's English speakers with a duality that is worth noting. English usually has a "low" word and a "high" word for everything. Where a Saxon would "buy" something, a Norman would  "purchase" it. Where a lowly Saxon would look after "sheep" and "cows", the lordly Norman would eat "mutton" and "beef."

This distinction is historically grained-in deep with us, no matter where we speak our English. In England there is actually a "Plain English Campaign" that seeks to unpick the efforts of government officials who try for a note of authority but end up communicating in ludicrously lofty terms that can hardly be understood by the rest of us.

Good style requires the writer to be on the look-out for the appropriate word to use in every context. Back in the day when books were expensive status symbols, writers would pepper their sentences with lots of Latin-derived words -- a sort of high-flown jargon that was meant to exclude the lesser educated person and give the book buyer a snobbish sense of superiority. In these more egalitarian
times, Victorian style often seems almost unreadable -- and it's largely for this reason.

Lacking a sense of word choice is called "having a wooden ear." Be warned: wooden ears produce leaden prose.

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