February 25, 2011

Words of the Month - Threesomes

        English is a language uniquely rich in synonyms, a fact that comes primarily from our history of absorbing other languages' words.  One category of borrowings are a particularly fun place to see synonyms in action: these are the places where English retains words from its Anglo-Saxon roots, its Norman French influence, and its love affair with Latin.  In these threesomes of words that ought to have the same meaning, we can see some interesting sociolinguistic echoes of history.
        After Anglo-Saxon England was conquered by the French-speaking William of Normandy in 1066, three languages were in use in England.  The common people continued to speak their English, French was spoken in the courts, and Latin was the language of the church and scholarship.
        Let's start with a simple threesome.
rise - Old English root        mount - French root        ascend - Latin root
        Consider these three words, and notice that the French word is the one used to climb onto your horse (which you wouldn't have unless you were of the nobility - i.e. French-speaking), while the Latin word is the one used to describe going up to heaven (which you'd be more likely to discuss if you were in the clergy - i.e. schooled in Latin).

        Nine hundred and fifty years after the Norman Conquest, six hundred years since English is once again a native tongue at all levels of society, our words still retain connotations from their origins.  We tend to accept our synonyms with Old English roots as being the most basic, while our synonyms from French and Latin roots are perceived as sounding more elegant or educated.
I think this one is a text.

book - a good, basic English word
        from Old English roots
volume - the French synonym is
        fancier and probably more
        expensive
text - the synonym from Latin roots is
        the scholarly one that might also
        refer to a religious work

help - OE - This is what you scream
        when you're being run over by a
        cart horse.
aid - Fr - This is what your servants
        provide you.
assistance - L - This is what the librarian offers when you need help with your
        studies.

kingly - OE        royal - Fr         regal - L
        The French synonym is the one applied to anything belonging to or pertaining to the king, such as a Royal Society.  This is the word that 300 years of French-speaking kings of England used when setting up official titles.  The Latinate synonym means pretty much the same as the Anglo-Saxon word, but is generally taken as more learned-sounding.


goodness - OE         virtue - Fr            probity - L
holy - OE                    sacred - Fr          consecrated - L

And a couple of bonus foursomes…
time - OE                  age - Fr                   epoch, era - L
ask - OE                    question - Fr        interrogate, query - L

        I find it wonderful and fascinating that our words capture and retain so much of their own history, and wonderful also that English makes room for so many of them.  I love that even with all these synonyms very few of our words are truly redundant, because each word has its own unique connotations.  Being fluent in English is like being the proverbial kid in a candy store, surrounded by a dazzling and enticing array of wonderful treats of all descriptions.  You can select every word according to nuances of flavor and mood, and they're all delicious!

[Picture: Book and candle, wood block print by AEGN, 2000.  (This piece appears as an illustration in Resistance and Obedience to God: Memoirs of David Ferris, edited by M. P. Grundy, and an adapted version illustrates Vision Revealed, by me.)]

2 comments:

  1. I hadn't thought of these examples. I am most familiar with food words: sheep when it is alive and needs to be cared for, is (I assume) Old English, while mutton is what it is called by the aristocrats when it was served to them at the table. Same with cow, steer, or bull, and beef; chicken or hen and poultry. There are definite class connotations.

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  2. I love the animal/food examples. I didn't include them because they're mostly duos instead of triads, but along with OE "cow" and Fr "beef" you can compare the Latinate adj. "bovine."

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