Language of Origin
Abstract and Keywords
The English language has a unique history, the result of successive invasions and population change in the British Isles and the global dispersion of English speakers. This history has created a layered language with special affordances. It is rich in synonyms with diverse connotations, offering arguers nuanced options in word choice. This chapter demonstrates how arguers use these layers, noted by rhetoricians in the eighteenth century, from the Old English core containing frequently used common words to the elevated French additions brought in by the Normans to the Latinate and Greek terms borrowed as the language of learning. English remains porous to words from any language. Examining the origins of words helps to capture the settings in which users encounter them, and that history of usage and context can give words a certain argumentative force. Everyday core words, heard from childhood in informal settings, often suggest sincerity and clear explanations; French words, clustered in certain areas of meaning, can add elevation; Latin/Greek terms provide abstractions and formality. Word origins can be used in text analysis in two ways: first by the quantitative profile of the distribution of usage among the three main source languages (e.g., what percent of the keywords come from what sources?) and second by the strategic use of keywords from each of the three layers (e.g. what are the sources of the critical terms in an argument?)
This “unwriting” of the famous conclusion to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address offers two alternatives along with Lincoln's original word choice. Each option comes from one of the three major layers of English vocabulary:—the Anglo-Saxon core, the French additions initiated by the Normans, and the direct borrowings from Latin or Greek. Lincoln had even more choices than those listed, and indeed almost every word in his speech, beyond the articles, pronouns, and prepositions, could have been replaced by other more or less synonymous words and phrases. Those familiar with the original no doubt will judge that Lincoln's choices were unerringly the best possible. As it turns out, he chose predominantly from the Anglo-Saxon or Old English core and frequently from the slightly more formal French layer (malice, charity, firmness, finish, orphan, achieve, nations). But he avoided words borrowed directly from Latin or Greek (Cmiel 1990, 116–18).1
The Historical Layers of English
Every contemporary speaker and writer of English constantly makes such choices among synonyms, whether consciously or not. The sheer number of alternatives available illustrates one special feature of the English language: the size of its lexicon. On the basis of entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), David Crystal estimates that English users can access half a million words and perhaps another half million technical words (1988, 37; for larger claims, see Crystal 2004, 119). The size of this potential vocabulary (p. 24 ) does not mean that any one speaker of English has a larger working vocabulary than the speaker of any other language. But English does offer an astonishing range of synonyms and near synonyms, allowing precision and nuance in word choice. The reasons for this variety are largely matters of historical accident, and detailed accounts can be found in scholarly histories of the language.2 The following offers a brief sketch of the influences that have created contemporary English with its wealth of synonyms. An awareness of the historical layers of English is necessary grounding for a “first approximation” of the rhetor's options in word choice.
The Old English Core
The standard history of English, told again and again from the Venerable Bede to Jonathan Swift to PBS's Robert MacNeil, is a story of invasion, conquest, and displacement. In this familiar account, the population inhabiting what is now England in the first century bce had been there for centuries and spoke a Celtic language. After they were conquered by the Romans between 44 bce and 50 ce, a hybrid civilization thrived until the legions withdrew in the fifth century ce, leaving the Romanized Celts vulnerable to invaders. Those from northern Germany and Denmark colonized different parts of the island and pushed the surviving Celts to the west, to Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland, where the languages still spoken belong to the Celtic subfamily of Indo-European languages.
This standard account has been challenged recently by Stephen Oppenheimer (2007) and others on the basis of DNA evidence. In the competing narrative, the British Isles, depopulated by the Ice Age, were repopulated circa 16,000 bce by people coming up the coast of western Europe. This population, whose genetic imprint, according to Oppenheimer, still dominates throughout the British Isles, was subsequently invaded by Celtic and then by Germanic speakers, and at the time of the Roman invasions, the population in the south of England presumably already spoke a Germanic language. In this account, the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries were only a later migration of a small group from the same language family.3
The competing narratives differ fundamentally on when speakers of Germanic languages first colonized southeastern England. But neither version alters the surviving documentary evidence that by 600 ce the written language of the people settled in England was the Germanic variant sometimes called Anglo-Saxon and referred to by linguists and lexicographers as Old English (OE). This is the language of the Beowulf saga, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's History, and other literary, historical, legal, and religious works surviving in a corpus of some three million words. Its orthography includes special letters for the th sounds, and, unlike later forms of English, it is an inflected language: the grammatical roles of words are signaled by their case endings. But it is filled with words current English users can still recognize fifteen hundred years later: freond (friend), aefter (after), full, hand, claene (clean), inn, land, lust, norþ (north), baec (back), tear, slaep (sleep), weorþ (worth), biernan (burn), lif (life), deaþ (death). Old English also (p. 25 ) has many words of Greek and Latin origin, some brought in when its speakers adopted Christianity and along with it the Greek and Latin words for religious objects and ideas: for example, priest, altar, relic, shrine, alms, disciple, epistle, chalice, hymn. But God, heaven, and hell were native to Old English, as were fiend and doom. The English term for the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost, comes from the Old English term for spirit, namely gast (in German, Geist). Hence the Latin Spiritus Sanctus became the Old English Halig Gast.
From the eighth century on, the Old English–speaking population fell victim to invasions from the Vikings of Scandinavia. Within fifty years of their successful raids on the east coast of what is now England, these “Danes” had conquered half the country, settled in substantial numbers, and also converted to Christianity. During the following years of cultural blending, hundreds of words entered Old English from Scandinavian, including many basic terms like they, dirt, hit, flat, egg, give, are, get, leg, raise, want, die and most words beginning with sc or sk, such as scare, sky, skirt, scrap, skill, skin.4 Combining the lexicon of Old English and the additions from Old Norse forms what can be called the core vocabulary in contemporary English, the oldest layer in the language and the source of its simplest and most frequently used words.5
The Norman French Contribution
Relatives of the Nordic people who invaded England in the eighth and ninth centuries also conquered and colonized the north of France. Within two centuries of settlement, these “Normans” (i.e., Northmen) had adopted the culture and language of the Romanized Gauls, and in the late eleventh century they successfully invaded England, seized administrative control, both civil and ecclesiastical, of the country, and maintained that control by their military presence in a string of fortified castles built across the country. The government and the courts conducted business in French for the next three hundred years. But the Normans did not really colonize England in large numbers (Williams 1975, 84). Instead, a French-speaking minority ruled the English-speaking majority, creating a social stratification reinforced by language difference.
The influence of Norman French on English after 1066 was significant but selective. Estimates of borrowings run as high as ten thousand words, but many of these additions cluster in areas of meaning that represent aspects of life controlled by the Normans. For example, since the Normans took over the law courts, many current English words associated with legal proceedings derive from Old French: for example, felony, attorney, inquest, jury, plaintiff, sue, plea, verdict, warrant, bailiff, bail, crime, depose, fine, perjury. Some technical legal terms retain their obvious French origins, like voir dire and remand. The Normans also controlled the civil administration, as indicated by words like mayor, minister, parliament, court, chancellor, sovereign, tax, revenue, and government itself. And of course they maintained this control through military domination, as demonstrated in French words like soldier, lieutenant, army, enemy, garrison, guard, retreat, and battle. (p. 26 ) French military and aristocratic culture is especially evident in the curious language of heraldry, itself a word of Anglo-Norman origin.
At the same time that they controlled the government, the military, and the courts, the Norman French commanded the best of the available goods. So, not surprisingly, many words for fine clothing and food came into English from French. In an often-quoted passage from the first chapter of Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott pointed out the telling differences in origin between “Saxon” words for farm animals versus “Norman” words for the meat from those animals: swine is Old English but pork Old French, calf is Old English but veal comes from Old French, and the same pattern persists with ox or cow versus beef, sheep and lamb versus mutton, hind and stag versus venison, chicken and hen versus poultry. It is easy to distinguish producers from consumers in these clusters based on origins.
In the centuries of Norman cultural dominance, 1100–1400, French words sometimes pushed out existing Old English terms; people (from OFr pueple), for example, replaced OE leod. But often, outside the special contexts mentioned above, English core words and French borrowings coexisted and eventually acquired slightly different meanings and usage domains. Most English speakers would easily separate pairs like strength/vigor, hearty/cordial, house/mansion, wish/desire (in each case the OE word is given first).
After three hundred years, English, enriched by Norman French, once again became the “official” language. The Norman ruling class had been cut off from its French connection after the Hundred Years War, and many had intermarried with the English. In 1362 Parliament conducted business in English again, instead of French, and by 1415 Henry V revived English in official documents. Chaucer (1340–1400), who commanded French and Latin as well, chose to write The Canterbury Tales in English. The English of roughly 1100 to 1500 with its French additions, called Middle English (ME), was a simpler language than Old English. Nouns lost their case endings except for the genitive -s (the priest's book), resulting in a greater use of prepositional phrases to compensate. Word order therefore counted more than inflection in determining the functions of words, and the basic order of the English sentence, noun phrase + verb + noun phrase, was established (Mueller 1984, 7). Verbs still retained endings according to person, which they have since lost (e.g., say/sayest/sayeth, first, second, and third person singular respectively); infinitives with to came into use; and French spellings for English sounds were adopted: qu for cw and th for thorn (þ) and eth (ð).
French, of course, is a vernacular offshoot of Latin, and stylistic analyses that pay attention to word origins often distinguish only the core English vocabulary from all later infusions, whether derived directly from Latin or indirectly through a Romance language like French. But given the historical accidents that produced modern English, the borrowings from French deserve special attention because of their quantity, their clustering in certain areas of meaning, and their special connotations when they exist as synonyms with core words. Furthermore, English rhetoricians beginning in the eighteenth century, newly aware of the history of their language and perhaps influenced by then-popular French rhetorics (Fenelon, Rollin, Massillon), emphasized the French-derived layer in English. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, delivered in 1762, Adam Smith (p. 27 ) described English as formed from the “French and the Saxon” (11), and Hugh Blair, in a work of the same title first published in 1783, described English as a combination including a distinct French source: “the English which was spoken afterwards [after the Norman Conquest], and continues to be spoken now, is a mixture of the antient [sic] Saxon, and this Norman French, together with such new and foreign words as commerce and learning have, in progress of time, gradually introduced” (2005, 92).
In that “progress of time” French has continued to be a dominant source in English for words describing luxury items, for haute couture and haute cuisine. Many of these “fancy French words” in contemporary English were borrowed centuries later, not in the Norman period. The current association of French terms with fine food and fashion, strenuously cultivated by advertisers, is more a product of France's European influence during and since the Enlightenment, the source and sign of a continuing presumption of French refinement in arguments for cultural excellence. But many words from the older Norman French layer, in addition to these more recent borrowings, still carry an aura of dignity and elevation.
The Language of Learning From Latin and Greek
In Norman-controlled England, while the workers were speaking English and their rulers speaking French, the clergy, the scholars, and other officials were reading, writing, and often speaking Latin. All over Europe, England included, Latin remained the language of learning from antiquity through the seventeenth and even into the nineteenth centuries. In the universities, like Oxford, that began to appear in the twelfth century, all texts were read and all lectures and disputations were held in Latin. For native speakers of English or French, or indeed of any European vernacular, entry into the social and ecclesiastical elite of the learned required years of Latin instruction. Over the centuries, the Latin used in the church and schools evolved, as does any language in use. Thus medieval scholarly and ecclesiastical Latin and early modern Neo-Latin differ from classical Latin.
Because of its constant presence as the alternate language of learning and Christian worship, Latin has always been a source of borrowed words in English. But in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, Latin borrowings increased as Europeans improved their access to and understanding of classical Latin texts and began to acquire classical Greek, which became the second language of the ablest scholars. All the university disciplines studied in Europe—theology, medicine, law, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, logic, and rhetoric—were studied in Latin and derived their key terms from either Latin or Greek. So, inevitably, when scholars began to write on these subjects in their native languages, they incorporated words from Latin and Greek for the concepts and entities they were used to reading and writing about in those languages. The extent of this borrowing is on display in the so-called “Tree of Porphyry,” the scheme for organizing the world of “substances” derived from Porphyry of Tyre and repeated in dialectical treatises for centuries. Here is the version, in Latin, from Philip Melanchthon's Erotemata Dialectices in 1547 (1963b, 530):
(p. 28 ) No knowledge of Latin is needed for the English speaker to recognize words that were borrowed directly and that still carry the same meanings: substance, corporeal, incorporeal, composite, infinite, finite, animate, inanimate, animal, sentient. (Other Latin words in this passage came into English from Latin through French: simple, mixed, perfect, imperfect, rational; plant, however, came into Old English from Latin much earlier.)
Modern English owes the majority of its vocabulary, some two-thirds of its words (though not its most frequently used words), to borrowings directly from Latin, or from other Latin-derived vernaculars, especially French, Spanish, and Italian. But just as French words cluster in those areas of meaning that reflect the Norman cultural presence in England, so deliberate Latin and Greek borrowings cluster in the academic disciplines and in areas of meaning covered in formal documents that once would have been written in Latin. Many of these learned borrowings have become indispensable for any communication not about everyday objects and topics. Among the words adapted from Latin and Greek in the early modern period are such now common words as fact, explain, exist, necessitate, crisis, contradict, appropriate, relaxation, external, scheme, system, conspicuous, (p. 29 ) obstruction, habitual, expensive. But the direct borrowings still create a Latin and to some extent Greek layer in English that constitutes its vocabulary of learning. The correlation holds fairly well: the more formal, abstract, and academic the text, the more Latinate the vocabulary. The informal spoken language is filled with words derived from Germanic, Scandinavian, and sometimes French; the formal written language has proportionately more Latin and Greek words, a distribution that has marked consequences for the vocabulary of persuasion.
Periodically, language reformers, from Jonathan Swift to George Orwell, have called for purging English of its classical and foreign borrowings and restoring its pure or native vocabulary. Even as early as the sixteenth century, some English scholars objected to the heavy incorporation of “inkhorn” terms from Latin and Greek. In an attempt to restore an “Anglo-Saxon” vocabulary, one Elizabethan scholar, Ralph Lever, wanting to avoid Latin terms when writing a treatise on logic, renamed his subject witcraft from native English words (wit + craft), and proposed replacing the Latin and Greek lexicon of logic with other English equivalents: a proposition would be a saying, a definition a saywhat, an affirmation a yeasay, a negation a naysay, and a conclusion an endsay (Howell 1956, 61). Needless to say, generations of English users have found the Latin derivatives used in the study of logic clear enough. There can be a distinct advantage in having a vocabulary dedicated to a particular subject, without overlapping more common words that carry multiple associations. (See Crystal 2003, 125, and Cmiel 1990, 114 on reform movements.)
Incorporations From World Contact
English speakers from the British Isles have always taken in words from the many cultures they have had contact with, through trade or colonization, and the pace of these borrowings quickened in the sixteenth century. On ships of exploration and commerce, English speakers encountered not only new cultures with new languages, but also sailors from other European maritime powers—especially the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Dutch—who had acquired new words in their voyaging and coined useful nautical terms. The lexicon of older foreign borrowings into English comes then either directly from the original language or from the language of another maritime power. By these contacts over centuries, English picked up words, as it picked up goods and knowledge, from virtually every culture on the globe: clamp, yacht, cruise (Dutch); mahogany (Spanish/Mayan); caravan (Persian); tea (Dutch/Malay); teak (Portuguese/Malay); zero (Italian/Arabic); pundit, guru (Hindi); curry, pariah (Tamil); kangaroo (Guugu Yimidhirr, an Australian Aboriginal language); coffee (Turkish/Arabic), kiosk, turban (Turkish/Persian).
In part as a response to the flood of new words, the French, Spanish, and Italians established academies centuries ago to pass judgment on admissible language and good usage. Still in business in the twenty-first century, the French Académie's language police (p. 30 ) forbid the official, published use of many foreign words, especially Americanisms, in place of French terms. English-speaking countries have never been either so organized or so resistant. As a result, English is a great stew of foreign borrowings, and the lid is still off the pot. (See the section on foreign borrowings in “New Word Formation.”) And English is now out of the hands of native English speakers; as a lingua franca, often used as a medium of communication between speakers of different languages, it exists in a variety of “world Englishes.”
An American Vocabulary
English landed in North America in the early seventeenth century as the language of immigrants in Virginia and Massachusetts, and by the time of the Revolution (1790 census), nine out of ten of the colonists were English speakers. But the English of the colonies began to diverge from the English of England from the moment the first immigrants encountered plants, animals, geographical features, and indigenous peoples they had never known before. When confronting new things unnamed in their own language, people can either adapt a word from their own vocabulary or adopt a word from a language that has named it already. English speakers in North America did both, stretching their word robin to refer to a different species of bird and narrowing their word corn, meaning any grain, to refer to maize. They also borrowed many words from Native American languages: raccoon, skunk, squash (the vegetable), hickory, pecan, chipmunk, moose, terrapin. The process of borrowing from Amerindian languages, sometimes through the French fur trappers, continued into the nineteenth century for terms naming items in Native American culture: wigwam, teepee, squaw, moccasin, tomahawk, pemmican.
Africans sold into slavery in the Americas to some extent maintained their own languages. English words traceable to African languages include banana, tote, banjo, juke, and yam. In Sierra Leone and on the slave ships and in the slave markets, a hybrid English developed for communication from the seventeenth century, one that some scholars describe as the source of Caribbean English and of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the United States (see Dillard 1973; Labov 1973). Growing out of distinct social and regional experiences (e.g., the Gullah spoken on the islands off South Carolina), AAVE is better described as an independent dialect that has continually fed into other varieties of English.
The English spoken in the United States has also been heavily influenced by contact with Spanish speakers from Florida to Texas to California. Their cattle-rearing culture in the arid Southwest provided regional terms that became general in the late nineteenth century: mesa, corral, ranch, lariat, lasso, stampede, sombrero, plaza, tornado, arroyo. Spanish New World food terms (chocolate, tomato, themselves taken from the indigenous Nahuatl) and cooking terms (barbecue, enchilada, tortilla) were adopted as eagerly as the cuisine. The process of borrowing from Spanish speakers is increasing with the increasing presence of Hispanics in the United States.
(p. 31 ) Homonyms and Synonyms from Different Origins
The notion of a word stands for a form/meaning pairing. In a deliberately designed language, every form/meaning pair would be unique. But English has many identical forms, words that are spelled (homographs) and/or pronounced (homophones) the same way, though their meanings differ. Many of these homonyms have come into English from different languages, and most dictionaries consider identical forms derived from different sources to be separate lexical items, really separate words, requiring separate entries.
match1 = one like another, from OE gemaecca = companion or mate
match2 = small piece of wood with ignitable tip, from OFr mesche = lamp wick. Given its chaotic origins, English has accumulated a large number of such indistinguishable word forms with distinguishable meanings.6 They pose few problems in understanding, since context usually clarifies which homonym makes sense, though these identical forms do provide sources for meaningful wordplay that persuaders can exploit (see chapter 6).
But while homonyms are often curiosities, synonyms, different forms with close or identical meanings, are the fuel of rhetorical power in English. The layering of languages that produced the English lexicon—the Germanic core, the French additions, and the Latin and Greek incorporations—gives its users an especially rich repertoire of synonyms roughly equivalent in meaning but different in other communicative dimensions (see Gramley and Pätzold 2004, 29).
English users would be able to distinguish among these options on the basis of shaded meanings and typical context of use. Most users would agree that to terrify is worse than to frighten or that anger is more intense than consternation. Many larger sets of synonyms from multiple origins exist, like the series phoney (Gaelic), fake (nineteenth century coinage from an OE root), false (OFr), artificial (OFr), simulated (L). Most contemporary English users would give these words the common denotation of not genuine or not real. But these words are hardly equivalent, and each has acquired special senses and usage restrictions. Contemporary English users would readily produce the pairs false teeth, fake fur, artificial sweetener, and simulated pearls, but they would rarely haphazardly substitute one of these adjectives for another, as in fake teeth, false pearls, simulated sweetener. (p. 32 ) The familiar pairs are established collocations, fellow travelers in usage. A language user's sense of where a word can be used and where it cannot comes from exposure to actual usage. Rhetors can either unobtrusively match this sense, using the familiar collocation (e.g., artificial sweetener), or they can tweak expectation for effect (e.g., fake sweetener).
Clarity and Sincerity: When Core Words Dominate
The simplest English words and the words in widest use tend to be the oldest, the core words from Old English and Old Norse in use before 1000 ce. According to a statistical analysis of current British English, ninety-eight of the hundred most frequently used words come from this indispensable functional core—a predictable proportion, since these most frequent words include the basics like the, is, in, and other determiners, prepositions, and conjunctions (Crystal 2006, 54; the two not of Germanic origin are people and use). Words from this oldest layer also include terms for everyday, material reality—bread, milk, water, sun, moon, sky, house—and for the simplest actions, see, run, look, fall. Any grammar school reader, like the one sampled in the following passage, shows that the earliest words taught and learned are words from this core vocabulary.
The Wood Lot
“Look out!” shouted Lucy. Then she stood speechless. She couldn’t tell Mark what to look out for, but he knew. Dropping his ax, he sprang back from the tree he had been cutting and slipped a little on the softening March snow. It was a fortunate slip. It carried him out of the way of the second tree that came crashing to earth just where he had been standing. (Coatsworth and O’Donnell 1949, 5)
Of the fifty-four nonrepeated words in this passage, forty-two come from the core OE vocabulary, including words for simple actions (stand/look/drop) and things (ax/tree/snow), as well as the tense, modality, and negation markers in the verb phrases (had been/could not) and the relational words (but/that/where/what/to/of ) that shape the syntax. Of the nine words that do not come from OE or ON (e.g., shout is from Old Norse), March, fortunate, carry, and second are French additions, slip comes from Middle Dutch, and both cut and crash first appear in Middle English but probably have older sources. So even these nine have been in the language for a very long time, and, with the possible exception of the two names, Mark and Lucy, none of the words in this text came in directly from Latin.
A passage in which the core vocabulary dominates so noticeably will strike most English users as simple and straightforward. This effect occurs because core words, the oldest in the language, are also the oldest in the experience of native speakers; they are the first heard, the first spoken, the first read, the first written. They are associated with simple messages, and often with immediate, familial, and physical contexts. They have the force of familiarity and truthfulness. Hence texts perceived as clear and even sincere (p. 33 ) will tend to feature words from the Old English core of the language. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, toward the end of his “I have a dream” speech, used the following phrase, which, as he noted, came from an old spiritual:
- Free at last! Free at last!
- Thank God Almighty, free at last!
All these words come from Old English. Had King selected words from the French layer of the language at this point, he might have said, Liberated finally or from the Latin layer, Emancipated ultimately! 7 A speaker might deliver such phrases with the same vocal intensity, but only the original, in core words taken from the “lifeworld,” communicates the force and sincerity of King's passion.
Elevation and Panache: Featuring French Borrowings
The different persuasive effects of choosing frequently from the French layer of English are vividly on display in the following passage from a full-page advertisement that appeared in the National Enquirer for a special-edition Barbie Doll.
Autumn Glory Barbie
She captures forever the majesty of autumn, with its vibrant colors and regal hues. Introducing Autumn Glory Barbie, from the Enchanted Seasons Collection. A stunning tribute to the colors of fall.
Barbie doll shimmers in hues of copper and auburn. Adorned with fall leaves and accented with hints of purple and gold, her gown flows around her like an autumn breeze. Her long auburn hair and dark wine hat add the final touch to this autumn portrait.
Complete with Certificate of Authenticity, you can acquire this Collector Edition doll only through direct subscription for five easy payments of $15.80.
Autumn Glory Barbie doll, from the Enchanted Seasons Collection. A doll you will cherish like autumn itself. (September 10, 1996, 15)
Many of the nouns and adjectives in this text came into English from Old French. Not surprisingly, they are the words that convey the aura of elegance and beauty that is really on sale here. The two key words that give this Barbie her special label, autumn and glory, are both French borrowings, as are the two words that describe her type: she belongs in the Enchanted Seasons Collection. French-derived autumn exists in the language side by side with its OE synonym, fall, also used in the ad (colors of fall, fall leaves), but autumn carries associations of spectacle that the more common fall does not, simply because it is a less frequent word used in special contexts.
(p. 34 ) Other words from French in this passage carry notions of royalty typically associated with fashion, for example, majesty and regal; and from Old French also come the words to describe the response to this special Barbie's effect: she is stunning, she captures, and you will cherish her. And the French lexicon for fashion provides the terms for her gown: it is adorned and accented, and her hat adds a final touch. Another dominant word in this passage, color, came into Middle English from French, where it replaced an older and more general word, OE heo, which became hue. This term, which in ME meant one's general complexion or appearance, is now a less familiar and more specialized word for color choices in paints, dyes, etc. Surprisingly, the actual color lexicon in this passage—copper, purple, gold, wine—comes from OE. The greater age of these terms, pressed into descriptive service in this passage, stems from the fact that they derive from commodities traded in antiquity; purple, for example, comes ultimately from the Greek name for the mollusk from which purple dye was derived. The only color term from French is auburn, which has no single OE equivalent. Its use adds to the dominant au and ah sounds in the passage from the French-derived words: autumn, auburn, adorned, and around. Even the more legalistic words from French, authenticity and acquire, carry on the assonance. Paradoxically, the two defining words in this text, the species term Barbie and the genus term doll, cannot be glamorized. Barbie is a diminutive for Barbara, a name derived from the Latin feminine form of barbarus, the source of barbarian. And doll is a word of no traceable pedigree; it appears in English in the sixteenth century and is thought to be a corruption of the name Dorothea. It takes significant swathing in the lexicon of elegance from French-derived words to make this Barbie Doll, formed from a few cents worth of fabric and plastic, command a price of $75.8
Formality and Erudition: Words from Latin and Greek
In remarks that he made at a political dinner in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson defended his increasingly unpopular buildup in Vietnam by declaring his personal dedication to peace. Using core words to convey sincerity, he declared, “I want the killing to stop” (Windt 1983, 91). Two years later, on the very different occasion of a televised address to the nation, the president used words from a different level of the language: “I am taking the first step to deescalate the conflict. We are reducing—substantially reducing—the present level of hostilities” (Windt 1983, 100). Here, key choices are Latin derivatives that express the high seriousness of a formal policy announcement on a grave matter. The layer of classical borrowings in English is not only indispensable for formal and impersonal discourse, it is also the language of the scholarly disciplines. This layer is on display in the following passage from the twenty-seventh edition of Gray's Anatomy.
Cerebral Cortex.—Each hemisphere presents a convex superior and lateral surface ( facies convexa cerebri), a flat medial surface ( facies medialis cerebri), and an irregular (p. 35 ) inferior or basal surface (basis cerebri). A distinct medial or superior margin separates the lateral and medial surfaces; a more rounded lateral margin separates the lateral and inferior surfaces. The anterior end is the frontal pole, the posterior end the occipital pole, and the anterior end of the laterally protruding temporal lobe is the temporal pole. The surface of the hemisphere is marked by numerous irregular grooves, the fissures and sulci, with intervening rounded eminences, the convolutions or gyri. At first glance they appear quite irregular, but they can, with study, be fitted into a basic plan. The two hemispheres of the same brain differ from each other and they differ in turn from every other brain. (Gray 1959, 882).
The lexicon here is dominated by Greek and Latin terms because the knowledge conveyed has accumulated for centuries, beginning in the Greek texts of Hippocrates and the Greek and Latin texts of Galen. Indeed, medicine was taught exclusively in Latin well into the nineteenth century, and it still retains its classically derived vocabulary. This particular passage describes the gross anatomy of the cerebral cortex, the outer rind of the brain as it is typically visualized. The presence of Latin and Greek terms is so ubiquitous here, even to the point of untranslated Latin phrases in parentheses, that it makes more sense to notice the words that do not come from those two languages. The few words taken from the core vocabulary (other than the pronouns, prepositions, and articles) provide the ultimate referent (brain, that thing in the head), the indispensable verbs (is, mark, can, be), the orienting words (end, flat [ON]), and the comparing terms (more, two, each, same, in turn). Notably, the last sentence switches primarily to core words, and to the uninitiated,this sentence probably seems the clearest and most direct in the passage.
Analyses with Word Origins
While Old English provides the language of simplicity and sincerity and French adds words for elegance and order, Latin and Greek provide the special terms of scholarly and formal English. They are the source languages for technical vocabularies (as anatomy above) and, in general, of the lexicon of what can be called rational distance, in part because these words are not in everyday informal use. This quality of detachment dominates in the language of academics, as the following opening from a scholarly article appearing in the journal Nature demonstrates.
The existence of cooperation and social order among genetically unrelated individuals is a fundamental problem in the behavioural sciences. The prevailing approaches in biology and economics view cooperation exclusively as self-interested behaviour—unrelated individuals cooperate only if they face economic rewards or sanctions rendering cooperation a self-interested choice. Whether economic incentives are perceived as just or legitimate does not matter in these theories. Fairness-based (p. 36 ) altruism is, however, a powerful source of human cooperation. Here we show experimentally that the prevailing self-interest approach has serious shortcomings because it overlooks negative effects of sanctions on human altruism. (Fehr and Rockenbach 2003, 137)
There are two ways to analyze word choice in a passage such as this one based on language of origin: either by calculating the proportion from the different layers or by examining the pedigrees of the rhetor's most frequently used words. There are ninety-nine different words in this passage; of these, thirty-eight come directly from the core vocabulary. Five of the remaining sixty-one derive ultimately from Old English words, but shortcomings, overlooks, and any compound with self are later coinages from simpler roots.9 The other fifty-six words, all the subjects, verbs, and important modifiers, came into English either directly from Latin and Greek or from Latin via French. A formal style then can be defined quantitatively as a style in which either a high percentage of total words (approximately 56% in this passage) or an even higher percentage of important words (totaling almost 100% of the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in this passage) are not part of the core vocabulary. Words that entered Middle English from French do contribute significantly to the formality of this passage, but the higher the proportion of words incorporated directly from Latin and Greek, the more learned and specialized.
However, another way to analyze word choice by origin in this passage is to consider only the words that are most critical to the content, the “key” words that are likely to appear in an abstract of the article or a list of words for retrieval purposes. What is the most important word in the section quoted? Language analysts often select the most frequent word (outside of functional words) as the most important, and in this passage it is cooperation, which appears in four out of the five sentences, while the verb form cooperate appears once. The passage sets the problem of explaining how or why cooperation should exist. Cooperation is a borrowing directly from Latin. It creates a general activity, unified into a single abstract term that can be contemplated all at once, as something that needs to be explained.
This passage from the science journal Nature could not have been written, and arguably not even conceptualized, but for the great range of abstract concepts, the rational distance, made available in the language by the addition of learned borrowings and coinages from Latin and Greek. It is not that core English does not have the resources to express the same ideas; cooperation, for example, could be expressed in OE cognates: to cooperate is to get along with or to work with (as usual, phrasal verbs). But the state of “getting along with” or of “working together” (“getting-along-ness,” “working togetherness”) is harder to express in the core vocabulary than it is in the ready-made abstraction cooperation (which itself, in the core vocabulary of Latin, literally means “working with”).
Instead of the brute-force quantitative methods just described, a rhetorical stylistics can use selective analysis, choosing keywords on the basis of their strategic use. In other words, with an awareness of the type of argument being pursued in a text, analysts can (p. 37 ) make other selections of key words. From this perspective, the selection of words from the different historical layers of English, with their different connotations and uses, constitutes an important persuasive resource; the particular choices at key points can support or subvert an argument.
An example of the usefulness of this method of “language of origin” awareness in rhetorical analysis comes from a New Yorker eulogy of the actress Audrey Hepburn written by John Lahr. A eulogy is of course an epideictic speech in praise, and, as one might expect in a piece celebrating someone so fashionable, words from French, old and recent, abound: sensational, fine, elegantly, royalty, charm, gorgeous, delight, manners, aristocratic, privilege, gaiety, piquant, gamine. But Lahr's specific epideictic thesis depicts Hepburn as someone who offered a rare combination of European sophistication with character traits that made her acceptable to “democratic America.” He sums up in the final paragraph:
What the camera caught behind the gaiety was the sweetness of a personality that seemed to move through the world without being tainted by it. Hepburn offered us a sense of wholeness, not hype. She radiated a freshness—what Truman Capote in his description of Holly Golightly [the character Hepburn played in Breakfast at Tiffany's] called “an almost breakfast-cereal air of health”…(Lahr, 1993, 72)
Noticeably, when Lahr celebrates Hepburn's internal qualities, the reality behind the glamorous appearance that, according to his argument, endeared her to American audiences, he selects terms that come from the core vocabulary, both in root and suffix: sweetness, wholeness, and freshness, core qualities in core terms.
The persuasive effects of differences in word choice based on origins can be subtle. The following brief argument comes from a science news story reporting the claim that wild populations of chimpanzees exhibit different “cultures.” This argument depends on readers perceiving distinctions in the chimps’ reported behavior; it depends, in other words, on a topos or argument from contrast. How does the language support this goal?
 aSome chimpanzees greedily slurp ants off a stick as if it were a wriggling lollipop, bwhile others daintily pluck them one by one.
 aSome chimps mop their brows with leaves; bothers demurely raise their arms while companions groom them.
 Researchers now agree that the variety of behavior exhibited by mankind's closest relative can be summed up in a single word: culture. (Verrengia, 1999)
The term chimpanzee itself, the subject of all the attention, comes from the Portuguese, who in turn took it from an African language, Kongo: ci-mpenzi. The functional and structural words in this passage come, of course, from Old English: some, off, as, if, it, (p. 38 ) were, while, others, one, by, their, with, now, that, the, can, be, up. None of the words reporting chimpanzee behavior in this popular account is a learned borrowing from Latin. The majority of the key words in sentences 1 and 2 also come from Old English or from cognate languages like Dutch or Middle Low German. These core words provide the basic categories of observation, the language of sense description: arm, brow, ant, stick, leaf. However, a few significant words come from French, and they are not randomly distributed. Each of the sets of observations reported in the first and second sentences breaks into two parts containing examples that are meant to be in contrast. These groups are marked in the passage by a's and b's: for instance, the slurping chimps versus the plucking ones, or the brow-mopping chimps versus the ones grooming with raised arms. Only the b groups have words derived from French, words that came into English primarily between 1100 and 1300 and that describe polite manners: daintily (which once meant excellently) and demurely. Not surprisingly, these help to create the impression of refined groups contrasted with uncouth ones (part of the significant anthropomorphizing going on in this argument). The very possibility of contrasting types of behavior is essential to the argument in this text: if chimps exhibit different learned behaviors, they have different cultures.
The third sentence of the article sums up or generalizes from the observations reported in the first two. Significantly, only one word in this sentence comes straight through from OE, and that is the word word; only two others come ultimately from OE roots, behavior and mankind, but these were not in use until Middle English. All the rest—researchers, agree, variety, exhibited, closest, relative, summed, single, and culture—came into English via Old French (and ultimately from Latin).10 In other words, the explanatory and summative, or generalizing and abstracting, vocabulary comes from a different level in the language, not from the core words. However, significantly, this interpretive vocabulary is not derived directly from classical languages and so is not, in fact, as abstract or general as it could be, since this piece appeared in a newspaper. A more scholarly vocabulary of interpreting and generalizing would come from direct Latin or Greek borrowings.
The examples offered above show how selection from different layers in the language can serve an argument, in these cases arguments that characterize and evaluate. Difference in word choice according to origins can also deliver the arguer's projected ethos or character, always a rhetorically salient dimension of a text. An arguer can also switch from one layer of the language to another to convey different degrees of intensity or commitment to a claim. An example of this practice, which amounts to an internal translation from one level to another, comes from a scholarly article about plagiarism written in part in the first person:
I ask myself what I am to do, as a WPA [Writing Program Adminstrator], given my beliefs about the roles that our construction of plagiarism play in reproducing and naturalizing social hierarchy and its constituent discourses—including, in this case, the constituent discourse of compulsory heterosexuality and binary gender.
This passage moves in and then out of formal, Latinate diction. After the word roles (from OFr), the author's language comes from an academic register of abstract terms and therefore abstract ideas. Latin borrowings and coinages include construction, reproducing, constituent, discourse, sexuality, binary, and the most important word, plagiarism (from L plagiarius, meaning kidnapper). Latin-derived constituent is used in the unusual sense of constituting and not the more common meaning of a part of. Compulsory, naturalize, gender, and social come from Latin via French. Both hierarchy and hetero in heterosexuality come from Greek.
However, in the first line of the quoted passage and in its second paragraph, words from the core Old English vocabulary dominate. While cheating (cognate with the legal term escheat), discover, and paper come from Old French, the remaining words making up the common phrases come from the core: I don’t like, I’m mad, I don’t think teachers should look the other way. Most interesting in this section is the synonym for plagiarism, ghostwritten, which is in fact a compound formed in the German manner from two OE roots.
There is, then, in this passage a marked difference in effect that depends on the language of origin. Where the author expresses her personal reactions, her gut feelings, the words come from the core vocabulary of sincerity. Where her points reflect the common idiom of her discipline and its ways of naming and defining, Latin scholarly terms dominate. But it might be more correct to put this point in the reverse way: readers take some phrases as the expression of sincere feelings because the core vocabulary dominates, and they count other parts as learned, analytical, and abstract because they feature Latinate diction.
Every language offers its users certain “affordances,” certain options and constraints, because of both its fixed constitutive forms and its historically contingent features. With its composite lexicon, English offers its users a rich array of choices and synonyms that tend to cluster, as this chapter argues, in three levels: the Anglo-Saxon core, the French additions beginning with the Normans, and the direct borrowings from Latin and Greek. These levels stand proxy for environments of usage. Given the typical contexts for words from these origins, English users associate words from these different levels with differences in persuasive appeals: the familiar, the elevated, the erudite. Rhetorical analysts can use this linguistic resource in two ways when analyzing a text: they can calculate proportions of words from the varying origins quantitatively to assess the overall level, or they can examine subsets or individual words judged important according to some criterion of selection. It is especially useful in this profiling to combine facts about language strata with argument analysis, noting the origins of terms that are critical in defining, characterizing, (p. 40 ) or evaluating. Also worth attention is the way a rhetor or text moves in and out of different layers of the lexicon, now aiming at a summative overview in distancing Latinate diction, now elevating with words interlaced from French, now using closer, look-you-in-the-eye core words, the oldest, simplest, and often strongest in the English language.
(1.) In his discussion of Lincoln's oratory, Kenneth Cmiel emphasizes Lincoln's “Saxon eloquence” (1990, 116). He also notes that Lincoln replaced Latin words with Anglo-Saxon equivalents in his First Inaugural and that he often achieved a “dignified nobility,” particularly in the passage cited from the Second Inaugural (117). But Cmiel does not identify the source of this dignity in Lincoln's occasional choice of words from the lexical layer of Norman French origin.
(2.) The many available histories of the English language include Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 2001; Barbara Strang, A History of English, London: Methuen, 1970; Joseph M. Williams, Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History, New York: Macmillan, 1975; David Crystal, The Stories of English, New York: Overlook Press, 2004; Lynda Mugglestone, ed., The Oxford History of English, New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2006; Richard Hogg and David Denison, A History of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Seth Lerer, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007; and Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw, The English Language: A Historical Introduction, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
(3.) Whatever the merits of this account, it does have the political benefit of genetically unifying the inhabitants of the British Isles, a benefit that Tony Blair drew on in his speech to the Irish Parliament (1998): “We experienced and absorbed the same waves of invasions: Celts, Vikings, Normans—all left their distinctive mark on our countries.”
(4.) On the chronology of assimilating Old Norse into Old English, see Crystal 2004, 65–77. Crystal points out that ON words, which obviously entered the spoken language first, do not actually appear in documents until centuries later (73).
(5.) When words are rank-ordered according to their frequency in a given corpus, their distribution follows the statistical pattern known as Zipf's law. Thus the most common word (the) appears twice as often as the next most common (of) and so on, with proportionately diminishing occurrences down the ranks.
(6.) Other homonyms exist because one word has acquired quite distinct, albeit plausibly derived, meanings over time.
brogue1 = a heavy shoe of untanned leather formerly worn in Scotland and Ireland. From Irish and Scottish Gaelic broc = shoe
brogue2 = a strong dialectical accent, especially a strong Irish accent (probably from the brogues worn by Irish peasants).
(7.) The precise Latin term for freeing someone from slavery was manumission. A directly Latin-derived variant of King's phrase might be manumitted terminally. The prevalent Latinate choice was, however, emancipated.
(8.) In 1846, in the seventh edition of his Elements of Rhetoric, Richard Whately, a British clergyman, firmly associated French terms with sham elegance: “It is worthy of notice, that a Style composed chiefly of the words of French origin, while it is less intelligible to the lowest classes, is (p. 41 ) characteristic of those who in cultivation of taste are below the highest. As in dress, furniture, deportment, &c., so also in language, the dread of vulgarity constantly besetting those who are half-conscious that they are in danger of it, drives them into the extreme of affected finery” (262).
(9.) The words in this passage can be separated into the following categories based on language of origin:
Latin and Greek: existence, cooperation, genetically (Greek), unrelated, fundamental, biology (Greek), economics (Greek), exclusively, incentives, theories (Greek)
French: social, order, individual, problem, science, prevailing, approach, rewards, face, view, interested, altruism (a late borrowing directly from French but coined from a Latin root), sanction, rendering, choice, perceived, just, legitimate, matter, bas(ed), source, human, experiment(al)(ly), serious, negative, effects
Old English: the, of, and, among, is, a, in, as only, if, or, whether, are, does, not, these, however, here, we, show, that, has, because, it, on, self, behavioural (ultimately from OE behaven), fair(ness), short(comings), over(looks). They is from Norse.
(10.) The identification of origins of the key words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) produces the following profile, sentence by sentence:
First sentence: (a) greedily (from greedy, OE graedig); slurp (from Dutch slurpen); ant (from OE aemete); stick (from OE sticca); wriggling (wriggle from MLGer wrigglen); lollipop (source unknown; perhaps from lolly = tongue);
(b) daintily (from dainty, from OFr deintie from L. dignus = worthy); pluck (from OE pluccian).
Second sentence: (a) mop (from ME mappe, perhaps from OFr dial. = napkin from L mappa = cloth, towel); brow (from OE bru); leaves/leaf (from OE leaf );
(b) demurely/demure (probably from OFr mur, meur = mature, serious); raise (from ON reisa); arm (from OE earm); companion (from OFr compaignon); groom (from ME grom = boy, servant, perhaps from OE growan = to grow).
Third sentence: researchers (research from MF recercher from OF re + cercher = to search); agree (from MF agreer from L ad + gratum); variety (from MF or L; MF varieté from L varietatis); behavior (from behave, ME behaven = be + haven from OE); exhibited/exhibit (ME exhibiten from L exhibitus, past participle of exhibere = to present); mankind (from ME mankind from OE man and OE cyn = kin); closest (close from MF clos from L clauses, past part. of claudere = to close); relative (from MF relatif or LL relativus); summed up (phrasal verb to sum up; sum from OFr summer from ML summare); single (from MF from L singulus); word (from OE wort); culture (from MF from L culturus).