Friday, May 07, 2010

Churchill on English

I haven’t the foggiest idea where I first came across this excerpt—I know it was during my time at Bob Jones, probably in a class, perhaps from one of my Creative Writing classes and possibly even from Historical Research & Writing (which taught me a lot more about individual word choice than most of my English courses)—but it made a deep impression on me. I’ll occasionally listen to Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech just to remind me how much power words can muster.
This examination of Churchill’s word choice in just a few sentences of his long career comes from Write to the Point, by Bill Stott. It illustrates well Churchill’s command of words and nicely sums up my own philosophy of word choice. (For those of you who have heard me wax eloquent on this subject—often more than once—I salute you for continuing.) If you’re interested in more good stuff like this, please do read George Orwell’s short essay “Politics and the English Language.”
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What [R.W.B.] Lewis wanted me to understand from the [John Crowe] Ransom essay [“On Shakespeare’s English”] was that I should write mainly with words derived from Anglo-Saxon English—Old English, as it is called. When there are several ways to say something, I should choose the “primitive” one and write, for example, “Ransom made up the adjective,” rather than concocted or fabricated it. He wanted me to understand Shakespeare’s trick of countering big words [from French and Latin] with old simple words, thus making the big words lighter. I used this trick a page back when I mixed big and little words, foreign-born and native, in the list “. . . bad social science, slobbering professionalism, and good old b.s.”
It is true that some writers and linguists claim there is no difference between the Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words in English, or indeed that the latter are preferable. . . . [But] the linguist Mario Pei has written “Avoid Latin derivatives; use brief, terse, Anglo-Saxon monosyllables”—and then pulled the rug out by announcing that his statement contained only one non-Latin word: Anglo-Saxon. That . . . doesn’t invalidate Lewis’ point that one should write mainly with Anglo-Saxon words. Sometimes a Latinate word is the shortest way to say something, as I think invalidate was in the last sentence. . . . In general, the Latin-derived words in English have several syllables. Often there are shorter Anglo-Saxon-derived words that mean the same thing. And even when the Anglo-Saxon word isn’t a monosyllable—as slobbering is not—it has a different feel, a different quality from most Latinate words (feel is Anglo-Saxon, quality is Latin). That is the point.
Consider the words Winston Churchill used to rally his countrymen and the English-speaking peoples in the dark days of the Battle of Britain. The best remembered words sound like this:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The words Churchill used are overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, the old short words he thought best of all. Consider the “we shall fight” paragraph written during the British evacuation from Dunkirk. When Churchill uses a Latinate word—confidence, say—he immediately balances it with a primitive monosyllable, strength, having tied them together not only with an and but with the same Anglo-Saxon adjective, growing. He speaks of Britain not as a “nation” or “country,” both words French borrowings, but as an island (from īgland, an Old English cognate with Old Frisian eiland and Old Norse eyland—all derived from a prehistoric Germanic word). He sees the British people fighting (the Anglo-Saxon root is feohtan) on the beaches, in the fields, and in the hills—all plausible native terms for native locales. They are to fight also on the landing grounds, two Anglo-Saxon words used despite the fact that their reference is ambiguous. Does Churchill mean “enemy disembarkation zones”? Perhaps—but he would never use such Latinate words because they hold up the white flag of bureaucratese. . . . As Churchill describes it, the battle for Britain will proceed from the beaches and landing grounds through the fields to the urban agglomerations, but of course he can’t use these words either. He won’t even speak of cities (from the Latin civis, civitatis). The fight has to be in the streets (Anglo-Saxon strēt, strǽt) and then, when it is abandoned there, back in the unsubmitting hills. After such drumfire of repetition and Anglo-Saxonisms, Churchill lets up the pressure in the last sentence’s last word. He allows himself to say surrender, a word from the French (se rendre, to turn oneself in), who were just then on the point of surrendering, and not a nice word.
Churchill used Anglo-Saxon words because, to English speakers, they are stronger than Latin words. They cut deeper into us. They are bone words, while the Latin words only reach our brains. From Latin we get “courage,” beautiful word. From Anglo-Saxon we get “guts,” an ugly ferocious word of much more force. Old English is, as Ransom said, a primitive language, as primitive as father and mother, wife and child, husband and friend, birth, death, kindness, truth, hope, hearth, home—all Anglo-Saxon words. . . . Old English is the language that names what matters most to most of us. Reason enough to write in it as much as possible.
From Bill Stott, Write to the Point (Columbia UP, 1991), 82-5.

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