The Tale of English

Anglo-Saxon origin words are in bold; French-Latinate in italics.

The tale of English begins long ago with the Anglo-Saxons, small bands that lived in Britain who spoke a Germanic tongue.

They worked the land, growing crops, and fought for their king often. But in 1066 they lost to the Normans.

The Normans were a French people, and they imposed their language, their legal system and their form of government on the populace.

At home, in the field or at church, the Anglo-Saxons still spoke English.

But in court, at the parliament and among elite society, they conversed in French.

The Old English words were raw and rough. The modern English vocabulary was refined and polished. And so English split; it divided. Many English words now had a twin. Numerous expressions developed a double.

You could buy a shirt or purchase a blouse. You could ask and answer, or inquire and reply. You could deem a man brotherly or consider a person fraternal. You could see or perceive, help or assist, forgive or pardon.

When you write, think about this split. If you wish for your words to be clean and true, pick the one from old English. If your desire is to appear erudite and pretentious, select the French.

Test Yourself: How Well Do You Know the Origins of English Words?

Read More: English Is Not Normal by John McWhorter