Posh Parlance

An eye-catching bit of computerised language analysis by a UK consultancy has got people talking about what English words have the most impact — and how vocabulary is linked to class.

It’s the old argument about whether blunt, direct Anglo-Saxon words work better than posh polysyllables plucked from French and Latin.

But some unexpected alliances have emerged as the battle lines have formed up.

The Sunday Times reckons politicians and others trying too hard to impress lard their speech with “florid” expressions derived from French and Latin roots. The Guardian — perhaps sensing an attack on its readership of educators, care workers and social technicians — mocks the research, which suggests that even the Queen uses less high-falutin language than some MPs.

The consultancy that stirred up the fuss analysed the spoken English of 256 people.

It reported that an average of 78% of the words used in everyday conversation had Anglo-Saxon roots, though manual workers used more of these short words and professionals fewer.

Politicians, however, chose to use more long, Latinate words than even the most educated people — “perhaps to appear more learned than they really are”, as the Sunday Times gently put it.

The papers picked on John Reid — the chain-smoking, guitar-playing former Glaswegian communist, son of a postman and a factory worker, now Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Defence — who these days uses only 66% Anglo-Saxon words when he speaks, compared with the Queen’s 68%.

Tony Blair and John Prescott were also found to use very abstracted Latin and French vocabulary, though former PM John Major scored higher (72%) and TV cook Delia Smith used even more everyday English words.

For e-editors, the instinct to prefer “need” to “require”, “help” to “assist”, “enough” to “sufficient” and “try” to “endeavour” hardly needs any justification.

We know the power of the short, strong words that have come down to us from Saxon times. And we have the backing of everyone from Sir Walter Scott and George Orwell to the greatest English critic of them all, F R Leavis, who (rightly) hated Milton for his “Latinism”.

More controversially, though, some of us sense an even stronger power that resonates through the few dozen common words descended from those other early invaders, the Vikings.

Essential words like “want”, “die”, “get”, “birth”, “anger”, “trust”, “lift”, “loan” and “scare” are all derived from Old Norse. They are made for headlines, and made to express big issues and real emotions. For more about this particular E-EDITOR hobbyhorse, click through to Raw Norse Power.

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