Do You Know What You Are Saying?
There was an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday – Do You Know What You Are Saying? – in which Melvyn Bragg used a new computer program to analyse the amount of words of Anglo-Saxon / Old English origin in modern English.
He looked at the language used by a radio DJ (Terry Wogan), a lawyer, an author (Dylan Thomas) and a rapper. Not surprisingly, the one with the lowest proportion of Anglo-Saxon words was the lawyer (about 60%), while the rapper used the highest proportion (90%). He also analyized his own language and found he uses around 80% of his words are of Anglo-Saxon origin.
For all the language he examined, the proportion of Anglo-Saxon words was much higher than expected. It seems that English remains very much a Germanic language, eventhough it contains numerous loanwords, particularly from Norman, French, Latin and Greek.
Some people, notably those in the legal and medical professions, tend to use many words and phrases of Latin and Greek origin, partly to obscure the meaning of what they’re saying. Moreover, descriptions of medical conditions sound much more impressive in Latinate language than in plain English. If you’re told you suffer from nystagmus, for example, you might think that it sounds like an interesting disease, though what it actually means is “wonky eyes”.