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”.

This entry was posted in Language.

7 Responses to Do You Know What You Are Saying?

  1. AR says:

    I have heard that the English lexicon contains more borrowed words from nongermanic toungues that germanic roots, although the words that are most commonly used are germanic in origin.

  2. TJ says:

    That reminds me of the story of the Greek ambassador for the UN, sometime in the 70′s I think when they say he gave a speech made completely of 70 words or 70 lines, I can’t remember, and it was totally in Greek, yet mostly 80% or 90% of the attendance understood what he said, because he made it completely of words most common to all people and got Greek roots in origin!!

    Anyone remembers this story?

  3. TJ, I remember that story. Aktually, my unkle no’s the guy. He met him oohen he oohent on vakation. Small oohorld, huh?

  4. TJ says:

    o_O … ummm …..yeh!!

    was that Manx guys?

  5. Joseph Staleknight says:

    No, more like Manxish English.

  6. TJ says:

    hmm I wonder how Englishish Manx would look like!?

  7. Benjamin says:

    It’s relieving to see that other language’s speakers also worry about their language and how it is used. So far, I always thought, this problem might be exclusive to German. Now I’m happy again. ;)