Avoiding Words of Foreign Origin

Consider Orwell's famous rendering, from “Politics and the English Language,” of a verse from the King James version of Ecclesiastes --

"I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

-- into the language of 1940s bureaucrats --

"Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

One reason Orwell's ironic “translation” lacks the sincere tone of the original is that it has fewer monosyllables. Another is that it contains more words of Latin and Greek origin.

Because “Politics and the English Language” expresses a preference for words of Anglo-Saxon origin, some have charged Orwell with racism. This is surely unfair – it just happens that, for historical reasons, the Anglo-Saxon words in English tend to be the ones with the simplest connotations. Nicholas Ostler notes in Empires of the Word that “much of a language's flavour comes purely by association” -- an example Ostler gives is that for the first few centuries after written Greek literature began, each genre had to be written in the dialect of its first practitioners. “So epic poetry had to be written in Homer's mixture of Ionic an Aeolic, lyric poetry in Doric, history at first in Ionic, tragedy in Attic.”

Of course, once such associations are set, they may tend to reinforce regional stereotypes. And excluding foreign words may also mean excluding new ideas. Dmitri Sologdin, a character in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle, disciplines himself into avoiding words of foreign origin --

“I make a mark here every time I use a foreign word in Russian when it isn't unavoidable, The number of such marks is the measure of my imperfection. This one is for the word 'capitalism,' which I would have replaced with 'moneygrubbing' if I'd had my wits about me. 'Surveillance' in my slovenly haste I failed to replace with 'watchkeeping.' So I've given myself two bad marks.”

That's the Harry Willetts translation. The old Michael Guybon translation has --

“I make these ticks every time I use a foreign word without any real need. The total numbers of ticks show how far I am from my goal. When I used the word 'capitalism' just now, for instance, instead of 'the rule of usury,' or when in the heat of the moment I was too lazy to use 'tale-bearing' instead of 'informing,' I gave myself two ticks.”

Sologdin's examples are very politically charged. Maybe without the importation of foreign words and ideas into Russia, the Revolution couldn't have happened. On the other hand, the terms "the rule of usury” and “moneygrubbing” seem more ideologically loaded than the term “capitalism...”

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1 thought on “Avoiding Words of Foreign Origin”

  1. A footnote by Karl Marx, quoted in Lewis Hyde's The Gift — "In the seventeenth century, many English authors continued to write 'worth' for 'use-value' and 'value' for 'exchange-value,' this being accordant with the genius of a language which prefers an Anglo-Saxon word for an actual thing, and a Romance word for its reflexion."

    You could be right that this feature of the language encourages the English to see foreigners as corrupt!

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