Linguistic purism in English

Linguistic purism in the English language is the belief that words of native origin should be used instead of foreign-derived ones (which are mainly Latinate and Greek). "Native" can mean "Anglo-Saxon" or it can be widened to include all Germanic words. In its mildest form, it merely means using existing native words instead of foreign-derived ones (such as using begin instead of commence). In a less mild form, it also involves coining new words from Germanic roots (such as wordstock for vocabulary). In a more extreme form, it also involves reviving native words which are no longer widely used (such as ettle for intend). The resulting language is sometimes called Anglish (coined by the author and humorist Paul Jennings), or Roots English (referring to the idea that it is a "return to the roots" of English). The mild form is often advocated as part of Plain English, but the more extreme form has been and is still a fringe movement; the latter can also be undertaken as a form of constrained writing.

English linguistic purism is discussed by David Crystal in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. The idea dates at least to the inkhorn term controversy of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Barnes advocated linguistic purism and tried to introduce words like birdlore for ornithology and bendsome for flexible. A notable supporter in the 20th century was George Orwell, who advocated what he saw as plain Saxon words over complex Latin or Greek ones, and the idea continues to have advocates today.


Old English and Middle English

Old English adopted a small number of Greco-Roman loan words from an early period, especially in the context of Christianity (church, bishop, priest). From the 9th century (Danelaw) it borrowed a much larger number of Old Norse words, many for every-day terms (skull, egg, skirt).

After the Norman conquest of 1066–71, the top level of English society was replaced by people who spoke Old Norman (a dialect of Old French). It evolved into Anglo-Norman and became the language of the state. Hence, those who wished to be involved in fields such as law and governance were required to learn it (see "Law French" for example).

It was in this Middle English period that the English language borrowed a slew of Romance loan words (via Anglo-Norman) – see "Latin influence in English". However, there were a few writers who tried to withstand the overbearing influence of Anglo-Norman. Their goal was to provide literature to the English-speaking masses in their vernacular or mother tongue. This meant not only writing in English, but also taking care not to use any words of Romance origin, which would likely not be understood by the readers. Examples of this kind of literature are the Ormulum, Layamon's Brut, Ayenbite of Inwyt, and the Katherine Group of manuscripts in the "AB language".

Early Modern English

In the 16th and 17th centuries, controversy over needless foreign borrowings from Latin and Greek (known as "inkhorn terms") was rife. Critics argued that English already had words with identical meanings. However, many of the new words gained an equal footing with the native Germanic words, and often replaced them.

Writers such as Thomas Elyot flooded their writings with foreign borrowings, whilst writers such as John Cheke sought to keep their writings "pure". Cheke wrote:

I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.

In reaction, some writers tried either to resurrect older English words, such as gleeman for musician, sicker (itself an early borrowing from Latin sēcūrus) for certainly, inwit for conscience, and yblent for confused, or to make new words from Germanic roots, e.g. endsay for conclusion, yeartide for anniversary, foresayer for prophet. However, few of these words remain in common use.

Modern English

William Barnes poet
William Barnes, a noted advocate of English linguistic purism

A noted advocate of English linguistic purism was 19th-century English writer, poet, minister, and philologist William Barnes, who sought to make scholarly English easier to understand without a classical education. Barnes lamented the "needless inbringing" of foreign words, instead using native words from his own dialect and coining new ones based on Old English roots. These included speechcraft for grammar, birdlore for ornithology, fore-elders for ancestors and bendsome for flexible. Another 19th-century poet who supported linguistic purism was Gerard Manley Hopkins. He wrote in 1882, "It makes one weep to think what English might have been; for in spite of all that Shakespeare and Milton have done ... no beauty in a language can make up for want of purity".[1]

In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell wrote:

Bad writers—especially scientific, political, and sociological writers—are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.

A contemporary of Orwell, the Australian composer Percy Grainger, wrote English with only Germanic words and called it "blue-eyed English". For example, a composer became a tonesmith. He also used English terms instead of the traditional Italian ones as performance markings in his scores, e.g. louden lots instead of molto crescendo.

Lee Hollander's 1962 English translation of the Poetic Edda (a collection of Old Norse poems), written almost solely with Germanic words, would also inspire many future "Anglish" writers.

In 1966, Paul Jennings wrote three articles in Punch, to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Norman conquest. His articles, entitled '1066 and All Saxon', published on 15, 22 and 29 June, posed the question of what England would be like had it not happened. They included an example of what he called "Anglish", such as a sample of Shakespeare's writing as it might have been if the conquest had failed. He gave "a bow to William Barnes".

In 1989, science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote a text about basic atomic theory called Uncleftish Beholding. It was written using only words of Germanic origin, and was meant to show what English scientific works might look like without foreign borrowings. In 1992, Douglas Hofstadter jokingly referred to the style as "Ander-Saxon". This term has since been used to describe any scientific writings that use only Germanic words.

Anderson used techniques including:

  • extension of sense (motes for 'particles');
  • calques, i.e., translation of the morphemes of the foreign word (uncleft for atom, which is from Greek a- 'not' and temnein 'to cut'; ymirstuff for 'uranium', referencing Ymir, a giant in Norse mythology, whose role is similar to that of Uranus in Greek mythology);
  • calques from other Germanic languages like German and Dutch (waterstuff from the German Wasserstoff / Dutch waterstof for 'hydrogen'; sourstuff from the German Sauerstoff / Dutch zuurstof for 'oxygen');
  • coining (firststuff for 'element'; lightrotting for 'radioactive decay').

The first chapter of Alan Moore's 1996 novel Voice of the Fire uses mostly Germanic words.

Another approach, without a specific name-tag, can be seen in the September 2009 publication How We'd Talk if the English had Won in 1066, by David Cowley (the title referencing the Battle of Hastings). This updates Old English words to today's English spelling, and seeks mainstream appeal by covering words in five steps, from easy to "weird and wonderful", as well as giving many examples of use, drawings and tests.[2]

Paul Kingsnorth's 2014 The Wake is written in a hybrid of Old English and Modern English to account for its 1066 milieu.

Edmund Fairfax's satiric literary novel Outlaws (2017) is written in a "constructed" form of English consisting almost exclusively of words of Germanic origin, with many neologisms (e.g., kenkeen for 'curious', to enhold for 'to contain') and little-used or obsolete words transparent in meaning to the modern reader (e.g., to misfare for 'to fail', to overlive for 'to survive'), and employing alternative orthographic conventions in compounds and phrasal constructions.


See also


  1. ^ Nils Langer, Winifred V. Davies. Linguistic purism in the Germanic languages. Walter de Gruyter, 2005. p.328
  2. ^ "How We'd Talk If the English Had Won in 1066". Authors Online. Archived from the original on 20 October 2013.


  • Paul Jennings, "I Was Joking Of Course", London, Max Reinhardt Ltd, 1968
  • Poul Anderson, "Uncleftish Beholding", Analog Science Fact / Science Fiction Magazine, mid-December 1989.
  • Douglas Hofstadter (1995). "Speechstuff and Thoughtstuff". In Sture Allén (ed.). Of Thoughts and Words: Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 92. London: Imperial College Press. ISBN 1-86094-006-4.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link) Includes a reprint of Anderson's article, with a translation into more standard English.
  • Douglas Hofstadter (1997). Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-08645-4. Also includes and discusses excerpts from the article.
  • Elias Molee, "Pure Saxon English, or Americans to the Front", Rand, McNally & Company, Publishers, Chicago and New York, 1890. [1]
Ayenbite of Inwyt

The Ayenbite of Inwyt —also Aȝenbite (Agenbite) of Inwit; literally, the "again-biting of inner wit," or the Remorse (Prick) of Conscience is the title of a confessional prose work written in a Kentish dialect of Middle English.

Rendered from the French original, one supposes by a "very incompetent translator," (Thomson 1907: 396) it is generally considered more valuable as a record of Kentish pronunciation in the mid-14th century than exalted as a work of literature.

Changes to Old English vocabulary

Many words that existed in Old English did not survive into Modern English. There are also many words in Modern English that bear little or no resemblance in meaning to their Old English etymons. Some linguists estimate that as much as 80 percent of the lexicon of Old English was lost by the end of the Middle English period, including a large number of words formed by compounding, e.g. bōchūs ('bookhouse', 'library'), yet we still retain the component parts 'book' and 'house'. Certain categories of words seem to have been especially vulnerable. Nearly all words relating to sexual intercourse and sexual organs were supplanted by words of Latin or Ancient Greek origin. Many, if not most, of the words in Modern English that are used in polite conversation to describe body parts and bodily functions are of Latin or Greek origin. The words which were used in Old English for these same purposes are now mostly either extinct or considered crude or vulgar, such as arse/ass.

Some words became extinct while other near-synonyms of Old English origin replaced them ('limb' survives, yet lið is gone or survives dialectally as lith). Many of these linguistic changes were brought on by the introduction of Old Norse and Norman French words, while others fell away due to the natural processes of language evolution.

Classical compound

Classical compounds and neoclassical compounds are compound words composed from combining forms (which act as affixes or stems) derived from classical Latin or ancient Greek roots. New Latin comprises many such words and is a substantial component of the technical and scientific lexicon of English and other languages, including international scientific vocabulary. For example, bio- combines with -graphy to form biography ("life" + "writing/recording").

English language in England

The English language spoken and written in England encompasses a diverse range of accents and dialects. The dialect forms part of the broader British English, along with other varieties in the United Kingdom. Terms used to refer to the English language spoken and written in England include: English English, Anglo-English and British English in England.

The related term 'British English' (which in American English is often used to mean English English and Anglo-English) has many ambiguities and tensions in the word "British" and as a result can be used and interpreted multiple ways, but is usually reserved to describe the features common to English English, Welsh English and Scottish English (England, Wales and Scotland are the three traditional countries on the island of Great Britain; the main dialect of the fourth country of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, is Ulster English, which is generally considered a sub-dialect of Hiberno-English).

Foreign language influences in English

The core of English language descends from Old English, the language brought with the Angles, Saxon, and Jutish settlers to what was to be called England in and after the 500s. The bulk of the language in spoken and written texts is from this source. As a statistical rule, around 70 percent of words in any text are Anglo-Saxon. Moreover, the grammar is largely Anglo-Saxon.A significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.While some new words enter English as slang, most do not. Some words are adopted from other languages; some are mixtures of existing words (portmanteau words), and some are new creations made of roots from dead languages.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) was an English poet and Jesuit priest, whose posthumous fame established him among the leading Victorian poets. His manipulation of prosody (particularly his concept of sprung rhythm and use of imagery) established him as an innovative writer of verse. Two of his major themes were nature and religion.

Linguistic purism

Linguistic purism or linguistic protectionism is the practice of defining or recognizing one variety of a language as being purer or of intrinsically higher quality than other varieties. Linguistic purism was institutionalized through language academies (of which the 1572 Accademia della Crusca set a model example in Europe), and their decisions often have the force of law. Purism is a form of linguistic prescriptivism.The perceived or actual decline identified by the purists may take the form of change of vocabulary, syncretism of grammatical elements, or loanwords. The unwanted similarity is often with a neighboring language whose speakers are culturally or politically dominant. The abstract ideal may invoke logic, clarity, or the grammar of "classic" languages. It is often presented as conservative, as a "protection" of a language from the "aggression" of other languages or of "conservation" of the national Volksgeist, but is often innovative in defining a new standard. It is sometimes part of governmental language policy which is enforced in various ways.

List of English Latinates of Germanic origin

Many words in the English lexicon are made up of Latinate words; that is, words which have entered the English language from a Romance language (usually Anglo-Norman), or were borrowed directly from Latin. Quite a few of these words can further trace their origins back to a Germanic source (usually Frankish), making them cognate with many native English words from Old English, yielding etymological twins. Many of these are Franco-German words, or French words of Germanic origin.Below is a list of Germanic words, names and affixes which have come into English via Latin or a Romance language.

List of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin

Below is the list of English words of native origin, in other words, words inherited and derived directly from the Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, stage of the language. This list also includes neologisms formed from Anglo-Saxon roots and/or particles in later forms of English, and words borrowed into other languages (e.g. French, Anglo-French, etc.) then borrowed back into English (e.g. bateau, chiffon, gourmet, nordic, etc.). Foreign words borrowed into Old English from Old Norse, Latin, and Greek are excluded, as are words borrowed into English from Ancient British languages.

List of pseudo-German words adapted to English

This is a list of pseudo-German words adapted from the German language in such a way that their meanings in English are not readily understood by native speakers of German (usually because of the new circumstances in which these words are used in English).

blitz or "the Blitz" (chiefly British use) – The sustained attack by the German Luftwaffe during 1940–1941, which began after the Battle of Britain. It was adapted from "Blitzkrieg" (lightning war). The word "Blitz" (a bolt of lightning) was not used in German in its aerial-war aspect; it acquired an entirely new usage in English during World War II.In British English, blitz is also used as a verb in a culinary context, to mean liquidise in a blender, a food processor or with a handheld blender stick.

In American football, a blitz occurs when some defensive players (other than those on the defensive line) abandon their normal positions, attack the offensive backfield, and try to overwhelm the offensive blockers before the quarterback or ball carrier can react. A blitz could cause a loss of yards, a sack, a risky throw, an incompletion, a fumble, or an interception. Because it can leave the defensive structure undermanned, a blitz is a high-risk, high-reward defensive strategy that can be used against either the passing game or the running game.

hock (British only) – A German white wine. The word is derived from Hochheim am Main, a town in Germany.

stein or beer stein – A beer mug made of stoneware or earthenware. The term is derived from German Steinzeug, "stoneware," a material that went out of fashion for beer mugs at the end of the 19th century and was replaced by glass. See Humpen.

Mox nix! – From the German phrase, "Es macht nichts!" Often used by U.S. servicemen to mean "It doesn't matter" or "It's not important".

strafe – In its sense of "to machine-gun troop assemblies and columns from the air", strafe is an adaptation of the German word strafen (punish).

Lists of English words by country or language of origin

The following are lists of words in the English language that are known as "loanwords" or "borrowings," which are derived from other languages.

For purely native (Anglo-Saxon-derived) words, see List of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

List of English words of Australian Aboriginal origin

English words of African origin

List of English words of Afrikaans origin

List of South African slang words

List of English words of Arabic origin

List of English words of Chinese origin

List of English words of Czech origin

List of English words of Danish origin

List of English words of Dutch origin

Dutch linguistic influence on naval terms

List of English words of Afrikaans origin

List of South African slang words

List of place names of Dutch origin

Australian places with Dutch names

List of English words of Etruscan origin

List of English words of Finnish origin

List of English words of French origin

List of French expressions in English

List of English words with dual French and Anglo-Saxon variations

List of pseudo-French words adapted to English

List of English Latinates of Germanic origin

List of English words of Gaulish origin

List of German expressions in English

List of pseudo-German words adapted to English

English words of Greek origin (a discussion rather than a list)

List of Greek morphemes used in English

List of English words of Hawaiian origin

List of English words of Hebrew origin

List of English words of Hindi or Urdu origin

List of English words of Hungarian origin

List of English words of Indian origin

List of English words of Indonesian origin, including from Javanese, Malay (Sumatran) Sundanese, Papuan (Papua), Balinese, Dayak and other local languages in Indonesia

List of English words of Irish origin

List of English words of Italian origin

List of Italian musical terms used in English

List of English words of Japanese origin

List of English words of Korean origin

List of Latin words with English derivatives

List of English words of Malay origin

List of English words of Māori origin

List of English words from indigenous languages of the Americas

List of English words of Norwegian origin

List of English words of Old Norse origin (often coming from Vikings from Denmark or Norway, but at the time there was little distinction between the Old Norse dialects spoken in the three Scandinavian countries.)

List of English words of Persian origin

List of English words of Philippine origin

List of English words of Polish origin

List of English words of Portuguese origin

List of English words of Romani origin

List of English words of Romanian origin

List of English words of Russian origin

List of English words of Sami origin

List of English words of Sanskrit origin

List of English words of Scots origin

List of English words of Scottish Gaelic origin

List of English words of Serbo-Croatian origin

List of English words of Slovak origin

List of English words of Spanish origin

List of English words of Swedish origin

List of English words of Tamil origin

List of English words of Turkic origin

List of English words of Ukrainian origin

List of English words of Welsh origin

List of English words of Yiddish origin

List of English words of Zulu origin

Plain language

Plain language is writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly, easily, and completely as possible. Plain language strives to be easy to read, understand, and use. It avoids verbose, convoluted language and jargon. In many countries, laws mandate that public agencies use plain language to increase access to programs and services. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities includes plain language as one of the "modes, means and formats of communication".

William Barnes

William Barnes (22 February 1801 – 7 October 1886) was an English writer, poet, Church of England priest, and philologist. He wrote over 800 poems, some in Dorset dialect, and much other work, including a comprehensive English grammar quoting from more than 70 different languages.

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.