The history of English made fun (yes, really)

Here at Afia we like to hunt around the internet looking for interesting stuff about language, a bit like those giant boars that root out truffles in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Of course, we don’t have sweaty French farmers slapping our backsides with sticks while we do it (well, not all the time), but otherwise the process is pretty similar.

Like the truffle hogs, every now and then we turn up a really juicy, flavoursome treat. This video from the Open University is fast, funny, and tells you the basics of the history of English in just ten minutes.

We’re not sharing this just because it’s fun. Knowing a bit about where English comes from and how it works is really useful if you want to write in a way that’s easy for your customers to understand.

One thing we sometimes talk about in training sessions is how English speakers have a different relationship with Anglo-Saxon words from the one they have with words of Latin origin.

Anglo-Saxon (along with old Norse) gives us lots of ordinary, everyday words like home, sky, street, dig, run, eat, food, love and have that we tend to use when we’re being plain and straightforward, or when we’re talking to friends, family and people we know very well.

Latin’s a bit more complicated – it’s given us a few simple words (face, chant, case, story, garden), mostly filtered through old French. But it’s also given us lots of longer words that people tend to use when they want to be formal: appropriate, accommodate, residence, apprehend, consume and so on. We often associate Latinate words with officialdom, authority and people who are trying to oppress or control us.

We couldn’t get rid of these Latin borrowings, even if we wanted to. That’s because many Anglo-Saxon words have fallen completely out of use in Modern English. Words from Latin and other languages fill the gaps.

(I say that, but if in your next team meeting you want to praise your finance manager using the Anglo-Saxon word gleawhydig rather than its Latin equivalent, prudent, go right ahead – you can add to the authenticity by carrying a battleaxe and stroking your gigantic blonde moustache.)

In general, though, if you use more short, simple Anglo-Saxon words and fewer long, fancy Latin ones, people will tend to think you’re being straight with them – which is a very useful thing to know if you’re writing to your customers.

Fancy reading more? Check out our blog on how to be clear.