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Twice recently I've seen someone on this site state that Anglo-Saxon words, or words of Germanic origin, are better for expressing emotion than words derived from Latin. Does anyone have any information about this? My intuition says that this has to be false.

One example is this answer to a question about four letter words, and the other is this answer about emotional writing.

Now, I'm not saying, and I don't think the original speakers were saying, that one language is better than another at expressing emotion, but rather that English words whose origin is one language or another are better for that purpose. This seems to me to be something that would be illogical, given that the emotions evoked by a word would depend entirely on what the reader put into that word. However the certainty expressed by the two examples suggests to me that I may have missed something. This is a subjective question, but what I want to see is whether there is any evidence on this subject?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by phenry, Mari-Lou A, medica, Josh61, Rory Alsop Jun 25 at 12:28

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Can you link to the examples you are talking about? –  Kosmonaut Jan 6 '11 at 19:29
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I'm not sure I see how ANY language can be "better" at expressing emotions than another. Emotions are by definition subjective. How can you possibly compare, or even truly know, the feelings invoked in some other human being whose native language is different than yours? Certainly, some cultures tend to be more emotionally expressive, and their language may reflect that, say, in richness of vocabulary, but that does not inform me how someone else actually FEELS. When a Frenchman hits his thumb with a hammer, can you compare that with a German hitting his thumb with a hammer? –  mickeyf Jan 6 '11 at 20:15
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Sorry, I think this is subjective and argumentative. Voting to close. –  Robusto Jan 6 '11 at 20:34
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@mickeyf: I'm afraid you misunderstand. This question is about English and English alone. It's not about comparing the effect of German words on a native speaker of German to the effect of French words on a native speaker of French. Much rather, it's about the effect of English words of Germanic vs Latin origin on native speakers of English. –  RegDwigнt Jan 6 '11 at 21:50
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Why God hates German words (techno-anthropology.blogspot.com/2011/07/…) –  mgb Sep 15 '11 at 5:18

4 Answers 4

I think that, even if not entirely true, there is a common idea that the English words for certain things, such as bodily functions etc are typically thought of as crude, while the French version is proper. There are also times where the french word for an animal is more suitable when talking about eating the animal. I have heard or read people who posit that this began to happen in earnest when the French began to take power of English affairs (see Cerberus' answer). In this manner, they can be viewed as euphemisms which are used to distance one from the object or act. This clearly has an impact on their emotive ability.

The first answer cited by the original question is certainly alluding to swear words and their ability to deliver emotional content. A prime example where the french word is favored over the english one in polite conversation is "shit/manure" pair, but the english one is more certainly going to be used in a more expressive form from time to time.

Note also that the German language is notoriously unsexy and choppy. So a good swear word coming from the language is more like a kick than a caress.

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Borges talks about this in his lectures on poetry. He talks about the word 'plain', which apparently comes from an Anglo-Saxon root meaning flat (as in 'the plain'). He relates this to the idea of words all being 'dead metaphors.' (The literal meaning of 'flat' gets replaced with a metaphor, but the word itself is a metaphor, hence it is a dead metaphor.)

This whole process is, of course, sort of blurred when you're borrowing words from another language.

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I think that this intuition that made some people think that Saxon words are better for expressing emotion, though a rather vague one, is not so rare.

Before the invasion of the French with William the Conqueror, non-Germanic words were much rarer in English. When the newer French c.q. Latin words came to England with the bureaucracy of the conquerors, they were first used in officialese and other educated language of the higher classes, while most common people probably hardly ever used a Latin word.

After a thousand years, many of those Latin words have become so normal as to replace Germanic words even for common, daily, concrete things. However, maximum entropy has not yet been reached, and it can still be seen that concrete, down-to-earth things have a higher chance of being referred to by Germanic words most of the time, whereas abstract things are more often referred to by words of Latin origin. In other words, most abstract words in English have a Latin origin.

It is commonly thought that most people find it easier and more natural to speak of concrete things rather than abstract things - on average, all things considered, etc. For example, it is thought that people use more concrete language, say, when they are drunk. Perhaps this has not been proved scientifically, but I think many people believe it to be true intuitively. Hence they believe that, in order to express an emotion, something close to the heart, it is slightly more natural to use Saxon words than Latin words, while formal, business-like language is often full of Latin words. Of course it would be a mixture of both kinds, but a somewhat higher percentage of Saxon words is what they believe to find. They might be thinking of an example like this:

Would you do me the honour of introducing me to this female acquaintance of yours?

Hey, that girl you were talking to is hot; take me to her, will you?

The formal language of the first sentence, full of Latin words, is for me much less expressive of emotion than the second one. Though formality and abstraction are difficult to extricate, I believe that it is not entirely unreasonable to suppose that abstraction alone has a distancing effect too.

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"In other words, most abstract words in English have a Latin origin." 'Fahrvergnügen' is one notable exception. –  oosterwal Jan 30 '11 at 4:24
    
@oosterwal: Oh, I have never heard that word used in English? I assume it means taking pleasure in driving? Schadenfreude is another one. –  Cerberus Jan 30 '11 at 4:40
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'Fahrvergnügen' was used by VW in their advertising in the US several years ago. It spawned a number of copycat slogans, such a pro-drinking T-shirt with the word 'Farfrompukin'. –  oosterwal Jan 31 '11 at 13:30
    
they were obviously trying to replicate what happened in the uk with the 'forshprung duch teknik' slogan a few decades ago, which did indeed catch on... –  ixtmixilix Sep 15 '11 at 13:22

I would suppose that it's because Anglo-Saxon words are more likely to, say, begin with a fricative or affricate, and have mostly short vowel sounds. Sound symbolism posits that these words sound objectively sharper, harsher, and stronger than their Romantic kin, which share a certain simple Latinate syllable flow that more often than not makes them mellifluous and pleasant.

Writers are often told to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin because in English they feel much more direct and decisive, and are better at cutting to the chase when it comes to describing action. I don't see why this wouldn't hold true for emotion words as well: the impression seems to be that the Anglo-Saxon words are simpler and may provoke the more visceral reaction, for better or for worse. Consider the Anglo-Saxon:

  • happiness
  • sadness
  • anger
  • trust
  • fear
  • love
  • awe

And some rough Romantic equivalents:

  • joy
  • depression
  • rage
  • confidence
  • terror
  • adoration
  • reverence

Sure, it's subjective, but there's definitely something to it. Of course, I could have chosen fewer French-derived examples, since you could argue that French is too mixed-up in the history of English as well as its Celtic neighbours to be reliably called all that Romantic.

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These examples you've given do not, to me, reinforce your point very well, because they seem to me to be more than synonyms: the Romantic words are more like superlative versions of the Anglo-Saxon words. So for me those words are likely to better convey emotion. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 7 '11 at 0:53
    
However your first point about pure sound strikes a chord with me, because I certainly feel that modern German sounds harsh compared to, say, modern Spanish. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 7 '11 at 0:54
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@Mr. Shiny and New: I was thinking about them in context. Consider I love you / I adore you, Do you fear me? / Do I terrify you?, or I trust you / I have confidence in you. The Romantic language feels much more abstract and removed from the situation, better perhaps for description, but certainly not for action. As far as I've heard, when people feel strong and genuine emotions, they typically use the Anglo-Saxon words. –  Jon Purdy Jan 7 '11 at 1:06
    
On second consideration I think the sound phonology doesn't work for me either. For some cases the Anglo-Saxon words may provoke a stronger emotion due to sound, but that would depend on the emotion involved; a pleasant mellifluous emotion might better be evoked by pleasant and mellifluous words. :) –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 12 '11 at 16:42
    
I can imagine that most of the words we native English speakers learn as children are of Anglo-Saxon origin, rather than Latin, so it may be easier to find emotional ties to those words. I have no concrete examples, just throwing out a hypothesis. –  oosterwal Jan 31 '11 at 13:34

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