Alex Knight : Class and the English Language

William the Conqueror, first Norman king of England, as depicted on the famous Bayeux Tapestry. His royal descendants would speak French until Henry V, 350 years later.

Blast from the past:
Class division in the English language

By Alex Knight / The Rag Blog / December 9, 2010

Would you rather receive a hearty welcome or a cordial reception?

Notice the imagery and feelings evoked by the two phrases. The first has a Germanic origin, the second, French. The English language is split along class lines — a reflection of the Norman invasion of England, almost 1,000 years ago. German-derived English words carry with them a working class connotation, and French-derived words come off sounding aristocratic and slightly repulsive.

Even though cordial literally means “of the heart” in French (cor is Latin for heart), the picture that comes to my mind is a royal douchebag entering a hall of power amidst classical music and overdressed patrons and nobility.

The image I get from hearty welcome is the extreme opposite: a single peasant reaching out to hug me and get me into their little hovel, out of the weather. Class is deeply embedded within our language, each word having its own unique history.

Wikipedia teaches many fun facts. The English language derives mainly from:

1. Old German — the Angles and Saxons (from Saxony) conquered Britain in the 5th century, mixing with Scandinavians and developing Old English.
2. Old French — the Normans (from Normandy) conquered England in 1066.

After the Norman invasion, England was dominated by a small French aristocracy, ruling over a much larger German working class. For more than three centuries, the rulers of England spoke French, while the common person spoke a Germanic language (Old English).

The two cultural groups began to intermarry after the Black Death of the 1340s wiped out half of the population, and over time the languages slowly merged, greatly simplifying the grammar of English, but also leaving a huge combined vocabulary.

The really interesting thing is that a lot of words in English carry a class connotation, based on whether they derive from French or from German. Words that mean basically the same thing will have either a formal, fancy, academic, upper-class connotation, or a casual, down-to-earth, gut-level, working-class feeling depending on the origin of the word.

Check out this list of synonyms!

German-derived… French-derived
begin… commence
talk/speak… discuss/converse
ask… inquire/demand
teach… educate
think/wonder… consider/ponder
understand… comprehend
truth… verity
answer… reply
before… prior
come… arrive
meet/find… encounter
leave… depart
wal… barrier
make/build… construct
break… destroy
small/little… petite
feeling… sentiment
good… beneficial/pleasant
hop… aspire
lucky… fortunate
help… assist
mistake… error
forgive… pardon
buy… purchase
have/own… possess
yearly… annual
careful/wise… prudent
child/youth… juvenile/adolescent
earth… soil
cold… frigid
wild… savage
belly/gut… abdomen
drink… beverage
hungry… famished
eat… dine

Notice that the Germanic words are usually shorter, more concrete and direct, while the French words are more elaborate, more abstract and indirect. What kind of person do you imagine speaking the words in the left column vs. the right column?

It’s interesting to me that nature and children are described by the French-derived English words as somehow negative or hostile, as with savage and juvenile. To me this reflects the hatred on the part of the wealthy and powerful for that which is untamed and free.

The medical-industrial complex also uses almost exclusively Latin and French-derived words, to sound more technical. This has the effect of making the body seem lifeless and mechanical, as with abdomen.

Plus, meat words are almost all French-derived, which reflects that while the Anglo-Saxon working class was responsible for hunting/shepherding the animals, it was only the Norman nobility who could actually afford to eat meat.

German-derived… French-derived
cow… beef
pig… pork/ham
deer… venison
sheep… mutton
calf… veal

Chicken and fish are the exceptions here, most likely because these meats were less expensive and more available for peasants and workers.

Finally, most of our government/state words are all French: court, judge, jury, indict, appeal, traitor, prison, military, representative, parliament, Congress, president, and marriage.

I notice that when I use the French-derived words, I experience a slight feeling of discomfort, as if I’m trying to impress people with my big words. This is precisely how academia functions, which is why if you attend a university or graduate school, you will be inundated with French and Latin-derived vocabulary, to distinguish you from the uneducated masses with their street language.

Might all of this explain why American conceptions of the French are as snooty, pompous, pretentious, easily-hate-able snobs? In occupied England, THEY WERE!

And for anyone interested in working class revolution, the best way not to talk down to people: stick with the more common Germanic words instead of bureaucratese.

Towards freedom! (not mere liberty)

(George Orwell wrote an awesome essay called Politics of the English Language, where he breaks down how abstract, complex language is a tool for those who seek to confuse the populace, and he outlines how to make use of concrete, plain English to actually reach people. A highly recommended essay for anyone who wants to write.)

[Alex Knight is an organizer, teacher, and writer in Philadelphia. He maintains the website endofcapitalism.com and is writing a book called The End of Capitalism. He can be reached at activistalex@gmail.com.]

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Alex Knight : Class and the English Language

  1. Anonymous says:

    This interesting analysis is marred by the author’s personal biases.

  2. Mariann says:

    No shit! If the author didn’t have such stereotypical views of French and German people in general, there would be little to say here, would there?
    Give me a break!! Were there no German aristocrats? No French peasants in your history books, Alex?
    Superficial and unenlightening.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The two languages most widely spoken in the United States are English and Spanish. The proportion of Spanish speakers who are working class is greater than the proportion of English speakers who are working class. Therefore Spanish is more the working-class language of this country than English. Since this article is written in English it must not be a working-class article and therefore I will disregard it altogether. (And I apologize for writing this comment in English.)

    David Morris

    PS: Vive la France.

  4. Brother Jonah says:

    English is a complex language mostly because until the time of Napoleon the English were conquered by every nation that found their miserable little island. The first written accounts of English people or their language were made when the first literate society to conquer them wrote accounts of that conquest.

    (“civilization” is usually defined differently by anthropologists than by me, they apparently make the line as “when the society becomes so organized that the society can kill its own people without fear of legal retribution”, guess how I feel about that…)
    Angle is a Latin word, London is a corruption of a Latin word.

    They were rolled over so many times and have so many introduced words that there’s no real grammar involved, you learn to read and write English mostly by memorization, you can only go a short way into the language with that “hooked on phonics” crap. Sound out the words, sure. Try sounding out the word “sure” the way it’s written.

    It’s a cheap way to teach a language, and we’ll get what we pay for.

    as for political meaning to it, I noticed that the people who demand only English be spoken don’t seem to be able to speak it very well. Or read and write it.

    French is the most widely spoken language in the world. Spanish is ahead of English.
    There’s a neat French word, named after a particularly arrogant French officer, “chauvinism” which pretty much describes the whole notion of esteeming one language above another as “better”.

    Oh, and my Spanish teacher taught us about the one “ism” word in Spanish that’s spelled with an “o” at the end, Machismo, is a joke.
    “ism” is a Greek suffix, not Latin, so it doesn’t follow the same Latin spelling rules. Viva el Anarquisma.

    Other than that, it is a good piece. Nobility is a stupid concept.
    It just gets regurgitated enough times every generation or so that it gets to stink up our lives… Fight la buena lucha.

  5. Brother Jonah says:

    I do like the way the Romans described Ireland. They called it Hibernia which has a lot to do with the cold climate. “winter” They said they didn’t bother conquering Ireland because the weather sucked, there wasn’t any gold and the natives were crazy. And whatever else, if you get captured, don’t let them give you to the women.

    I’ve been trying to get a Cherokee phrase, written in Cherokee, Sikawe’s Syllabary, (not quite an alphabet and Cherokee is written the way it sounds) to put on bumper stickers and tee-shirts, “This is America, Speak Cherokee” but so far, no go.

    Mostly because I feel up to yanking a few racist chains.
    Not like I would expect the “english only” people to be able to speak a second language fluently, when they really don’t have mastery of their first (and only) tongue.

    Just, you know, because it might cause a few wrinkled brows, the stirrings of those ol’ Cerebral Muscles, getting the first workout of their life.

    That would be, to mix a lot of introduced words, totally gnarly, dudes.

  6. Anonymous says:

    A friend, self defined as British Working class sums up this French-Saxon thing with the saying
    “Wo.. is what starts in Calais”.
    We all need a sense of humour to defuse rising class consciousness that (in my opinion) is messing things up.
    smp

  7. The French-derived English words as somehow negative or hostile, as with savage and juvenile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.