Recently I’ve been feeling unkindly towards the internet; however, this afternoon I rediscovered the joys of losing oneself down a web search trail and striking gold. Here’s what happened.
I was thinking about a name I liked that had popped into my head. I couldn’t tell if I’d heard the combination before, so I decided to do a search to see what came up. An alternate, Google-directed spelling emerged: it was the name of a choral song written to the words a poem by William Barnes, a writer from the 1800s. One thing led to another, and I ended up on his Wikipedia page.
You might have heard of William Barnes; I had not. Normally, I wouldn’t have let my surfing progress this far, but something on his page caught my attention. Besides being a writer, or I’m sure more correctly because he was a writer, Barnes was a leading advocate in a movement to purge the English language, restoring it to a time of linguistic purity before the extensive influence of Greek and Latin. He strove to reinstitute and normalize the Germanic equivalents, as well as offer Anglo alternatives to Greek- or Latin-derived words already fully incorporated into English. One of his suggestions, for example, was to replace the Latinate word grammar with the German-influenced (but invented) word speechcraft. The meaning is approximately preserved without involving a foreign lexicon.
I remember the moment I learned about the dichotomic nature of English. Some of the details are fuzzy; for example, I was some kind of teenager, in class, probably an English class, and we were reading or analyzing or talking about a poem or poetry by someone. What I do remember clearly is a mind-opening feeling, like the day had dawned or I had been reborn. (Once again, my nerdiness reveals itself, but I’m not afraid.) Essentially, there are two sides. German. Latin. And they hold different places and serve different functions in our language. Before this little revelation, I would use – overuse – Latinate words in poetry of my own. Back then I liked the flowery sounds and hazy, dreamlike pictures they conveyed. But since then, my tastes have changed. Although I realize the necessary functions of each, I usually prefer Germanic words: they’re often grittier, more like clay, less like marble. You get heart-jabbing words like forsake; alternately, renounce or relinquish.
My partiality for Germanic words, however, does not bend me towards linguistic purism. I told someone just the other day how glad I am that English is a mixed language. It’s rich and useful; I can always find the right word in a sea of synonyms. As an exercise, I had wanted to write this post using only Germanic influence for the prominent words. (I gave up at “Recently”.) My idealist side longed to imagine a language that’s as pure as it is gut-wrenching. But, as William Barnes rolled over in his grave, my realist side knew it was too late. English is not a dichotomy. It’s a meld. Without the full range of origins available to English speakers – Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, Arabic – English becomes a vapid string of words that aren’t quite right. And, if words can’t convey the right impression, they’re not much use to me.