Speak English, why don’t you?

So you think English is the international language of business, do you?

Well, I beg to differ: the language I hear most often in the workplace is mediaeval Latin.

Do I specialise in business writing for Cistercian monks?

Nope, I mostly work with bankers, private equity professionals and marketing types.

So how come? A quick history lesson to explain what I mean.

As we all know, in the eleventh century England was conquered by the Normans.

Arrows in eyes. Bayeux Tapestry. Ten sixty-six and all that.

It may have happened a millennium ago, but the defeat at the Battle of Hastings is still exerting its influence on modern business English.

Here’s why. The French-speaking, Latin-writing Normans came to dominate the rarefied world of the court.

Old English, the Germanic language of the conquered Anglo-Saxons, became associated with the illiterate lower classes.

The effects of this two-tier society can still be felt in the linguistic hybrid that is modern English. Look at these word pairs:

Residence and house
Cogitate and think
Assist and help
Sufficient and enough
Prior to and before

The words on the left are all derived from Latin. Notice how they’re not just longer, but also more abstract than their Anglo-Saxon alternatives?

In my experience, eight out of ten business folks prefer the ones on the left.

Long, abstract words make you sound posh and powerful, goes the thinking.

Simple, concrete Anglo-Saxon words make you sound, well, a bit simple.

Take these examples I’ve recently come across:

Latinate original: The transaction was completed on a bilateral basis

Anglo-Saxon alternative: The deal involved two people

Latinate original: We have developed a proprietary connectivity solution

Anglo-Saxon alternative: We’ve built an in-house web tool

Latinate original: We are a provider of fluid transfer solutions

Anglo-Saxon alternative: We make hoses

To the ears of a professional copywriter, the Anglo-Saxon versions make you sound honest. Clear. Down-to-earth. The sort of person people want to do business with.

The Latinate versions make you sound pretentious. Untrustworthy. Dissembling. And, actually, a bit insecure about your social status.

But it can be a struggle to get business types to see it that way.

It doesn’t help that all the rude words in English come from Anglo-Saxon. As far as I know, not one of the following has ever been banned from our screens:

Defecate
Urinate
Facilitator of intercourse with a maternal parent
Female reproductive tract
Individual who assimilates the male member into the buccal cavity
Mammary glands
Flatus
Excrement

I bet you can think of the Anglo-Saxon alternatives for these expressions, all of which you weren’t allowed to say on TV in the days before Deadwood.

If you can’t, check out the routine by US comedian George Carlin, a man with a poet’s ear for the rhythms of English.

(Warning: probably not office appropriate. If you work with people who feel uncomfortable using the word “house” instead of “residence”, they really don’t want to hear the translation for “individual who assimilates the male member into the buccal cavity”.)

You might not share Carlin’s relish for rolling Anglo-Saxonisms around his tongue, but you can’t deny the power of his words. Words that just lose a little something in translation.

So for punchier business writing, make like George and excise the excreta from your vocabulary.

Or, as those of us who like to speak English would say it: cut the crap.

11 Responses to “Speak English, why don’t you?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Helen Baker and Clare Lynch, Alice Jane Emanuel. Alice Jane Emanuel said: RT @helenbaker Chuckle-worthy post from @goodcopybadcopy – Why English is NOT the international language of business: http://bit.ly/hbdQzx […]

  2. Richard Gray says:

    Good stuff, Clare. Made me think of our UCITS plain English efforts. FYI: posted link our our (unfortunately pretty inactive) company FB page and Twitter feed.

  3. fvsch says:

    As a French learner of English, I’m not always at ease with the call for less latin* words in English sentences*. Emotional* attachment*, I guess. I don’t support* using* obscure* words in business writing (fondly called “copy*” on this web-site*), but let’s not forget that:

    1. There are quite** a few latin* words in common*—not really* literate*—use*. You supplied* a good example* with “The deal involved* two people”, which you billed** as an Anglo-Saxon rewrite.

    2. The problem* with bad business-speak is not so much the choice* of latin* words, but the choice* of arcane* words that the writer doesn’t understand well, or that mean nothing in the context*. Most of those words happen to be latin* (for the reasons* you highlighted in your article*), but banning*** latin* words is the wrong way* to look at this problem*.

    Now if you’ll excuse* me, I have to go learn some German*.

    * Latin words. I may have missed some of them.
    ** “quite” from latin “quietus”, “billed” from middle latin “bulla”, etc.
    *** This one is tricky. I found a german origin for the English verb, and a latin origin for the French equivalent. Damn you, proto-Indo-European roots!

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Richard: thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the post.

    fvsch: I agree that it would be impossible to cut all Latinate words from English – otherwise, we’d still be speaking the language of Beowulf. Indeed, I’m not sure I ever said we should ban them. Rather, my point is that if there’s a good Anglo-Saxon alternative, then you should plump for that.

    Your comment does raise a point that I do worry about, however – namely that those speaking Romance languages (French, Italian and Spanish) probably find it easier to recognise “transaction” than “deal”, making the latter a less inclusive choice (though few would guess what a fluid transfer solution is). Perhaps as economic power shifts east that will become less of a problem for me.

    Finally, to pick me up on “involve” in the example of the deal is to completely ignore the abomination (how’s that for a nice Latin word?) that is “bilateral basis”. A case of declining to visualise the ligeneous area for the arboreal forms it encompasses, methinks.

  5. […] how they’re taught. They think the sort of language a dusty English master in tweed uses is powerful. But it isn’t. It’s boring. Now while I’m not advocating web copy telling you to […]

  6. fvsch says:

    Regarding “involve”, I was just saying that it’s not an Anglo-Saxon alternative. But it is a good alternative to that “bilateral basis” abomination. My point is: better to insist on everyday, straightforward words than on germanic/latinate/whatever words.

    Also, I think it would be a good idea to focus on the roots of the issue. Fancy words (latinate or not) are symptoms. The cause is, I think, a lack of confidence. For instance, if we have to promote a product that is decent but not exceptional (Germanic alternatives: awesome, groundbreaking…), we’re in a tight spot. Our confidence in the product doesn’t match the client’s expectations, or our own expectations if we’re promoting our own products or services. And we have two ways to bridge this gap (plus one):

    1. Lie. (“good” → “Best product EVAR.”)
    2. Tone down. (“good” → “Value-added solution.”)
    3. Tone down the lie. (“good” → “Market-leading value-added solution.”)

    In a perfect world there would only be good products and services to promote. In the real world we may have to lie to some extent, but we should stop watering down what we say. (We may find out that a down-to-earth small lie works better than a heavily diluted exaggeration.)

  7. Clare Lynch says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with the confidence thing – a point I’ve made before and will make again in my next post on legalese. It’s why pompous Latinisms are so rife in the corporate world, where power relationships are all.

    But I still disagree that it’s not useful to consider the origins of words – precisely because of this confidence issue. I recently ran a course on clear English training for a group of corp comms bods, where I showed them the difference between Anglo-Saxon and Latin words. It gave them a way to articulate why certain sentences just sounded wrong. This was really useful for them because it gave them ammunition when making their case for clear English with the verbose executives they dealt with every day.

    Besides, when else do I get to use a phrase like “individual who assimilates the male member into the buccal cavity”?

  8. Jody Bruner says:

    Great post, Clare. I agree with fvsch about a stuffy style masking a lack of confidence. But I think it’s also from a lack of confidence in ourselves. It takes courage to write in a plain, simple way because people are afraid of being thought of as plain and simple.

  9. […] For more on the Latinate quality of much bad business writing see Speak English, why don’t you? […]

  10. Liat says:

    This article has helped me SOOOO much!!! I’m writing a book proposal right now and when I look at the first draft it is full of this nonsense!

    I’m so, so glad you posted this. Thank you!

  11. […] actually mentioned this particular crime against copy before (here and here), so we happened to know what they were talking about. But we were dismayed to learn that […]

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