Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

"Vow" is also Latin: an addendum on register

In a recent re-post from her old blog, Ella gives a quotation from The Silmarillion as an example of grand, yet simple diction. She notes that Tolkien uses only a few Latinate words: "'terrible', 'mountain', 'pursue', 'vengeance', 'possession'". However, there is at least one other: "vow," which is ultimately derived, through medieval French, from the Latin votum (of much the same meaning as the English derivative, though it can also denote the thing for which a vow is offered). The reason, I imagine, why she overlooked the word is that it feels so very Anglo-Saxon: it is short, has a w (not a very Latinate letter), and has been a part of ordinary English diction for a very long time.

I wonder if the slip suggests a further refinement to the rules of register that Ella sketched. We customarily distinguish Latinate from Germanic vocabulary, the latter comprising both Anglo-Saxon words and early loans from other Germanic languages, especially Norse. The Germanic words include most of the fundamental vocabulary of the English language: the pronouns (one, namely they, from Norse), prepositions, conjunctions, and many basic nouns (father, mother, daughter, son, town, lord, God), verbs (talk, walk, speak, including all that do not end in -ed in the past tense), and adjectives (small, old). The Latinate words (many of which are actually Greek) include most technical vocabulary of science, politics, religion, and law. But there is a recognisable set (perhaps not quite a class) of words that are Latin or Greek in origin, and yet so natural to modern English that we hardly notice their exoticism: for example, "air," "poison," "heir," "purple," "village" (and "villain"), "city," "Bible," "use," "person," and indeed "vow," as well, famously, as the words for various kinds of meat, such as "beef" and "pork." Many, if not all, of these were borrowed through medieval French. As a consequence, they do not feel out of place in a fantasy work set, as most are, in a vaguely medieval setting; nor do they greatly alter the register of a piece of primarily Germanic prose such as the Tolkien quotation.

The longer Latinate words, by contrast, are mostly Renaissance to modern borrowings or coinages, and are newer-come to the English language by several centuries. Because they have been part of the learned language, if not of the learned language alone, they often seem to us more profound; by the same token, however, they are often used too freely, and only rarely anymore in true periodic sentences of the kind that are customary in Latin and allow these words to breathe a little more freely than in a terser, more English prose. We simply are not taught to write Latinate English in the style of (say) Alexander Pope or Alexander Hamilton; hence the tendency of modern writers to write like bureaucrats or businessmen when they mean to be grand. Not a problem (another Grecism!), of course, if one means to do it, but I doubt most people really mean to.

The false grandeur of bureaucratic diction resembles a vice identified long ago in the Rhetoric to Herennius, a treatise traditionally credited to the Roman orator Cicero but probably not by him. The author identifies three different levels of appropriate style, which we may call the colloquial, ordinary, and grand, and three corresponding failures of style. The grand style, by his definition, is particularly ornate, but there is a corresponding "swollen" style that is excessively archaic and bombastic. Now, there is nothing very archaic about "bureaucratese," but it shares with the "swollen" style of the Rhetoric both bombast and the use of the proper elements of grand diction, without knowing how to use them to best effect. In On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine identifies the grand style as a particularly simple one; it is the emotion of the speaker, not the ornateness of language in itself, that gives it grandeur. That aptly diagnoses, I think, the problem with bureaucratic speech--it does not move the reader--and explains why the simple, Germanic style used by someone like Tolkien still seems grand to us.

No comments:

Post a Comment