No Anglo-Saxon friends without a few Latin enemies

Posted on 27 February 2011

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The Social Network took over $220 million at the box office

I was speaking to my Lusophone lover the other day as part of an ongoing campaign to improve my pidgin Portuguese.

The topic of conversation turned to films, and I wanted to find out what The Social Network was called in Brazil (as often there are differences in branding between English films – not straight translations, and they can be different even between Portugal and Brazil).

I found the relevant promo poster, noticing its tagline:

Você não consegue 500 milhões de AMIGOS sem fazer alguns INIMIGOS

(You don’t make 500 million FRIENDS without making a few ENEMIES)

Have a look at the Portuguese amigos and inimigos. They’re a pair: they’re Romeo & Juliet, Antony & Cleopatra, Ant & Dec… They look like they were made for each other.

Look back at the English pair: friends and enemies. Could be any two words in the world. They are English’s awkward blind date to Portuguese’s love at first sight.

Now, working in radio news – words, funnily enough, are basically our main tool. You have to be able to convey information effectively to the listeners.

We are told to avoid overly flowery language, long sentences with too many subordinated clauses, and not to get bogged down in lots of statistics. They don’t travel well: the message will be lost.

One of the stylistic rules juts out a mile for any budding linguist. It goes something like this:

Think twice about using long Latin-based words. Shorter words, Anglo-Saxon in heritage, are normally easy to understand, punchier, and convey the message more naturally.

Now as an extremely rough general rule, words derived from our Germanic forefathers are shorter, more concrete and more direct, whereas their Et-tu-Brute counterparts are usually longer, more abstract and, I suppose, are regarded as more elegant or educated. Not always true.

So, if you follow the anti-Latin radio rules:

  • We try not to advance, instead we go forward.
  • We don’t permit, we allow.
  • We own a dog, rather than possessing a canine. (Ok, you wouldn’t say that.)
  • We ask, we don’t enquire.
  • We are not content, we are happy.
  • We tell, we don’t inform.

(Have you noticed recently that every time a soldier steps on an IED in Afghanistan, the newsreader now says “Their family has been told”, and only rarely “..informed“? The stylistic advice nudging us towards Germanic words, I concluded, had gone too far.)

So – returning to friends and enemies, perhaps the reason the two words sit less happily together than the Portuguese pair is that: friend is Germanic, enemy – Latinate.

But telling us to remove Latin based words from our scripts is pretty short-sighted.

It’s quite obvious that – far from the Latin word just doubling up as a more abstract, posher, “more intelligent” version of its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, the two words normally live more or less in harmony – with different shades of meaning, giving English the ability to express more detail and nuances.

You certainly wouldn’t put:

  • “You can’t make 500 million FRIENDS without making a few FOES.”

So rather than it being something negative about the Latin word, I think it’s more about the intimacy we feel with Germanic words.

Et tu, cane? "Own a dog" vs. "possess a canine"

Yes, more often than not they hit closer to home because they are built from vocabulary we have known longer – and they probably contain more of the sounds our brains have been awash with since birth.

Perhaps this is why, at secondary school particularly, it was always easy to see when someone had passed off someone else’s work as their own, changing a few nouns and verbs using the thesaurus on their word processor.

Nine times out of ten, it’d give you a Latin word to usurp the Anglo-Saxon original. And it didn’t sound natural.

That said, Latin words clearly have their place – science would certainly be at a loss without them. English would be worse-off without them.

One of the main reasons English is the massive global language (Lingua Franca – no, Lingua Britannica) is that it is superb at borrowing words, moulding them in its own image. It is absolutely not ashamed to absorb words from a whole hotchpotch of different source. It’s a whore of a language – and it’s better off for it.

So I guess (not suppose) I should end (not terminate) this blog (not script) before I am flooded (not inundated) with complaints (not… “moanings“? 😛 ).

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