The Class Structure of English Vocabulary and How to Deal With It

By Andrew Harding

It is well known that what we call the English language is in essence an amalgam of two languages or kinds of language, and its vocabulary derives from two broad origins: Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Nordic roots, on the one hand; and Latin via Norman French on the other hand. There is also an overlay of vocabulary taken eclectically from many other sources, such as Greek (eg ‘drama’ and ‘theatre’) and the languages of the British empire (eg ‘pyjamas’, ‘juggernaut’ from Hindi). Even native American languages are represented (eg ‘persimmon’ is Algonquin). I want to label these two basic languages, for the sake of simplicity, as Old English (OE) and Norman-French (NF) respectively. It is a good deal more complicated than this, but let us not get too technical – the distinction works in practice. I tried it out on a page of a PhD thesis I am reading, and it was pretty easy to identify the members of each language group. For reasons that will become apparent the score came out firmly in favour of NF, by 58 to 16, not counting repetitions or small particles like ‘of’ and ‘the’.
Over the centuries this dual sourcing has given English a special kind of flexibility and subtlety that is partly due to it being able often to draw on two different words denoting basically or originally the same thing.
Let me illustrate the advantage this diversity creates. The word edifice comes from the Latin aedificium meaning building via the French word ‘édifice’. If somebody called my house a building I would agree; but if they called it an edifice I would feel complemented and obliged to say something modest about its proportions.  ‘Edifice’ has nuanced ‘building’ into something more special and can be used for any type of structure, even an abstract one, unlike aedificium itself. Similarly ‘chamber’ is derived from the Latin ‘in camera’ (in private) via the French chambre, meaning room. You may have noticed that lawyers have chambers whereas ordinary people just have rooms. Judges on the other hand also have chambers but sometimes conduct sensitive hearings ‘in camera’. This means privately in chambers, as in Latin, not recorded in front of a camera. A chamber is therefore simply an upper class room. You will now get the idea that we are dealing with class structure, not just vocabulary.
English people driving in France are somehow amused to see a sign saying ‘Cédez le Passage’, which just means ‘Give Way’ in French. To the English mind are conjured up gallant knights demanding (‘demander’ just means ‘ask’ in French) or ceding (to concede seems more graceful than giving up) the passage to another mounted member of the higher orders. To us English, it sounds distinctly odd in the context of modern traffic.
This apparent class distinction is of course not without historical basis. The Normans took over England in 1066 as a colony, forming at one stroke its upper class. (‘Geoffroi, how would owning Herefordshire suit you?’) My own ancestors, the Hardings of Erdington (derivation, Harding-town), like thousands of other Anglo-Saxons, had their lands taken by Norman barons. Limitation periods and lack of hard evidence unfortunately prevent my suing for their return - I don’t in any case want to reopen medieval wounds.
The Normans were oppressive, conducting genocide in the 11th century (the ‘Harrying of the North’, as history reads it down to be) and treating England as a tax and forced-labour farm subsequently. But they may be credited with that puree (how NF is that?) of English customs the common law, conceding (eventually) the principles of Magna Carta, with impressive edifices such as Caernarvon Castle and Salisbury Cathedral. Their rule also created a general prosperity and competent courts and administration (assizes, the Domesday Book, and so on). Bad King John did England a great service by disastrously losing the Norman territories in France in the early 13th century and then dying of dysentery (medical and scientific terms tend to be Greek). The Normans had no choice therefore but to settle down and become English. But by that time ‘English’ was starting to mean something more than Anglo-Saxon, and even the Plantagenet Norman kings became patriotically English, occasionally going over the channel to beat up the French, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
The English perception of their monarchy as somehow alien and English at the same time was always there and still persists. It is not for nothing that the current dynasty changed its name from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor (during World War One), and some people still think of Prince Philip as Greek. Due to a quirk of dynastic succession our monarchs have been basically German since the Hanoverian George 1. His 20th century descendant George V, responding to newspaper article describing him as ‘alien and out of touch’, famously said ‘out of touch I may well be, but I’m buggered if I’m an alien’. The monarchy has always been at pains therefore to stress its direct descent from the pre-conquest Saxon kings. Oddly enough none of the Saxon kings went down as a tyrant and some were greatly loved (Alfred the Great), even if some, like Ethelred the Unready (he could not read, but we don’t call him Ethelred the Illiterate) were lacking in civilised parts. Our monarchs are still crowned sitting on the throne of King Edward the Confessor (d.1065, and another loved Saxon king). Yet English royal, judicial, and parliamentary protocols (all four of those words are NF) are ineffably Norman in origin. The Saxon ‘Witangemot’, their parliament, survives only in our law school ‘Moot court’.
Gradually, transaction by transaction, the two languages grew into one just as the people who spoke them did, in spite of the persistent class distinctions involved. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with being the first English poet; you can almost feel the wrenching together of two languages in his The Canterbury Tales, which begins charmingly: ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every vein in swich licour, Of which vertu engendered is the flour’. I count that about OE 9, NF 7. Yet it was not until the late 15th century that official documents were issued in English; NF was still used until then for government documents and in the law. OE was used by the ordinary people – it was demotic (the Greek ‘demos’ means the people, hence ‘democracy’, the rule of the people). Unlike other languages where the demotic sprouted from underneath the classical (that is how ‘dog’ Latin, then French, Italian and Spanish were formed), in English the classical (NF) was overlaid on top of the existing demotic. The common law is actually still suffused with NF/ Latin obfuscations … cy pres, mortgage, escrow, ex parte, res judicata, certiorari (the last is now, thank goodness called a ‘quashing order’, quash being solidly OE – a small victory, one might say, for the unwashed proletariat). You can now see how lawyers managed to have chambers and solicitors were not exactly worriers-on-your-behalf (solicit meant originally to worry, not to tout for business) but more likely upwardly mobile businessmen. You can also see why a PhD thesis has more NF than OE words; if not it would probably fail on the grounds that it was too comprehensible.
So what does all this mean for us?
Let me illustrate. The other day I was told by a friend that I could take a 145 bus and disembark at Bras Basah Road. The choice of ‘disembark’ rather than ‘alight’ or just ‘get off’ was a charmingly elegant choice and made me feel quite special as I disembarked while all the other passengers got off. I almost felt I should have arrived with a valise, a secretary and two valets (all of these being NF words, obviously).
Now it is tempting to think how you can enhance your powers of expression and raise your social status by using lots of NF words. This works in almost every area. In the economy finance, securities, and derivatives are so much higher on the scale than shares, brass, or even gold. In sex we cannot even print the OE 4-letter words (think but do not speak) that are equivalent to the more acceptable and scientific NF words such as copulation, vagina, and semen. I recall a policeman in court asking for ‘permission to use the Anglo-Saxon’ when relating what the accused said to him. ‘Don’t worry, constable, we are very broad-minded in this court’, came the reply, as the PC regaled us with some very demotic language. A conviction and a hefty fine followed of course. It is odd to have to be ‘broad-minded’ enough to use your own language, but there it is – class distinction.
Noticeably, everything to do with science, government, academic disciplines, religion, and law, has almost exclusively NF vocabulary. OE vocabulary is confined mainly to the household, farming, and market places. Thus hearth, hedge, field, cow, horse and child are OE. Vegetables tend to be OE, while meat is of course exclusively NF (beef, pork, mutton, venison) because Saxon peasants (their upper class word - we called them, democratically, farmers) could not afford meat very often. You may have noticed I used the word ‘we’ in the last sentence. Class distinctions die hard.
So reflect if you will how much grander grand is compared with big; how much superior superior is to better; and how much more gracious is gratitude than thanks, and more elegant a donation than a gift.
So here comes the crunch. I think it would be lamentable if English class distinctions were to be disseminated just by using the English language. Rather I would say tailor the vocabulary to the moment, not the social status. OE is rural, simple, direct, rough, manly, and monosyllabic. NF is urbane, subtle, soft, feminine and polysyllabic.
Let me illustrate this by the following sentence uttered by US President Gerald Ford: ‘I ain’t gotten where I’ve got by no highfalutin public-speaking tricks nor nothing of that kind’. Logician Douglas Hofstadter uses that sentence as an example of one that proves itself to be true. But he is wrong. It proves itself untrue. Ford, by using only one NF word (public) has successfully identified with his political base as a middle-American republican by using the right type of language for the occasion. It is full of tricks, such as deliberate awkwardness and ungrammatical expression, as if to prove how illiterate or not-highfalutin (that word is American slang) he is. Imagine if he had said, ‘I did not ascend to the august office of President by the extensive use of impressive rhetorical devices’ (NF 8, Greek 1, OE 0). He would have lost his audience at about the word ‘august’ and would have been thought a totally typical Washingtonian pompous (highfalutin) politico of the worst kind. Trump does the same as Ford. The only NF words he ever uses are ‘total disaster’. He likes ‘very’, ‘smart’, ‘fake’, ‘bad’, ‘good’, and ‘evil’. An appointee is never an accomplished jurist, for example, but just a very, very, very good man.
Consider how all this applies to food. These days cuisine is offered in restaurants, while people merely do cooking at home. We are now quite used to our menus listing purees, pates, roulades, medaillons, jus, and noisettes. But as Bill Bryson points out in Notes from a Small Island, we English tolerate French main courses, but ‘don’t f*** [OE] with our puddings [OE]’! (Sticky Toffee or Bread and Butter Pudding, Apple Crumble, or Bakewell Tart - none of your Crème Brulee or Orange Chocolate Mousse, please!)
Sometimes then a spade needs calling a spade (there is no NF equivalent for the simple reason that the upper classes never used a spade). Shakespeare used almost exclusively OE words in curses (‘Away you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish! Thou art a boil, a plague sore; would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!’). But sometimes (eg, in a job interview) a sentence needs enhancement, and a nuance needs to be embellished. Shakespeare in a more subtle, diplomatic mood: ‘If, Duke of Burgundy, you would the peace, Whose want gives growth to the imperfections Which you have cited, you must buy that peace With full accord to all our just demands; Whose tenors and particular effects You have enscheduled briefly in your hands’.
If you write newspaper headlines you will probably prefer direct, short, OE words such as ‘polls’, ‘scam’, ‘blast’, and ‘hike’, rather than displeasing your subeditor with the likes of ‘elections’, ‘confidence trick’, ‘explosion’ or ‘price increase’.
So, girls, it is fine to call your boyfriend smart and hunky (although you may prefer to describe him to your parents as intelligent and masculine). But boys, remember your girlfriend is NEVER cute, small and womanly (OE) - she is preferably pretty, petite and feminine (NF), OK? The OE sounds like you are excusing her lack of beauty and sophistication. But on the other hand, if you want your classmate to keep his hands off her, a good dose of OE will serve you much better!


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