My question is whether there is a name for the phenomenon, and also if there is a body of literature including popular exposition about it, of which the paragraphs below exhibit examples.

"Nativity" is a fancy word for "birth", and what makes it "fancy" seems to be that it's derived from Latin. English-speaking people tend to regard words obviously derived from Latin or Greek as more hifalutin than words of Germanic origin. "Substance" is more dignified than "stuff"; "decay" more formal than "rotting"; "predict" more scientific than "foretell". When Arthur C. Clarke wanted to make the names of two characters in a story set in the very distant future seem futuristic, he called them Eriston and Etania, which seem like ancient Greek names (Or do they? I now find something on the web saying "Eriston" is of English origin and means "son of Eric", but I am doubtful).

It seems at least somewhat plausible to explain this by saying that people who spoke Latin and were familiar with books in Greek (maybe especially the New Testament?) brought civilization and literacy to British barbarians.

I have heard that something similar happens in Korea. Korean names of numbers bigger than 1000 are Chinese words.

I know enough about Swahili to know that it's pretty easy to tell which words in that language are derived from Arabic, and among those are all words that would be known only to literate people and unknown only in non-literate communities. The word "kitabu", meaning "book" is obviously of Arabic origin, although its way of being used in Swahili is completely adapted to that Bantu language, as seen in the fact that its plural is "vitabu" (it is one of a class of nouns in Swahili whose singular (in most instances) begins with "ki-" and whose plural begins with "vi-"). I don't know whether Swahili-speaking people feel the same way about Arabic-versus-Bantu as English-speaking people do about Latin/Greek-versus-Germanic-or-otherwise-barbarian.

Is there a name for this phenomenon, whereby even after centuries of development into erudite thinking, people feel that words that come from formerly more civilized foreigners are more civilized, literate, dignified, or formal than native words? What other instances of it exist than English and Korean?

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    "Is there a name for this phenomenon?" - pretention? cultural hegemony? "What other instances of it exist?" - every language?
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 28, 2012 at 18:19
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    I think this would be a better question if you just kept the final paragraph. The rest seems vaguely like a rant, or at least a bunch of paragraphs of your opinion that aren't necessary to the question. And I reckon @Mitch has it right with 'pretention' (or 'pretentiousness' :-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Oct 28, 2012 at 18:26
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    There's probably a shorter way of expressing it than "the phenomenon whereby even after centuries of development into erudite thinking, people feel that words that come from formerly more civilized foreigners are more civilized, literate, dignified, or formal than native words", but I think asking for a name for this phenomenon is Too Localised. Commented Oct 28, 2012 at 19:37
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    Your premise is flawed: Those words may have originated in a foreign language, but they are English words now. Those words were associated with being educated, and still are, because despite centuries having passed, language changes slowly and educated people still used them. And, especially, technical language often resorts to coining new words (or borrowing old ones for new purposes) from Latin or Greek because they need precise meanings, unburdened by centuries of baggage and polysemy. It isn't that "real English" is inferior. It's just how vocabulary changes among educated spearkers. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 14:01
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    How in the world is this not a real question—or general reference, for that matter? It is a very well-explained and extremely clear question that most likely does have a specific, authoritative answer (though I am sadly unaware of anything more specific than lexical stratification), but there is no way any general reference will be able to tell you that if you don't already know it. Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 19:47

1 Answer 1


Japanese is the classic example of the phenomenon you describe, which in the linguistic literature is sometimes referred to as lexical classes or lexical strata.

In Japanese, there are three lexical strata:

  • Yamato Japanese: words that don't have their origin in borrowing from another language.
  • Sino-Japanese: words originating from Chinese, centuries ago. Sino-Japanese words often seem "fancier" or more educated than Yamato Japanese words. As such, this is analogous to the Latinate lexical stratum in English.
  • Modern borrowings (from English, Portuguese, etc.)

The three lexical strata in Japanese differ not just in social significance, but also in terms of phonology and morphology (here is a short article discussing how).

Similarly, in English, we have at least two meaningfully different lexical strata:

  • Germanic (e.g. birth)
  • Latinate (e.g. nativity), which also effectively includes words originating from Greek.

Just as in Japanese, not only is the "non-native" stratum considered more erudite than the native one, there are grammatical differences between the strata (although fewer than there are in Japanese). For instance, the suffix -ate or -ation in English can only directly attach to a Latinate word, e.g. vary -> variation, but not bury -> *buriation.

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    I would say that English effectively has three strata: the base Germanic wordstock, Latinate vocabulary that entered the language a long time ago via French, and modern Greco-Latin scientific vocabulary. Commented Oct 28, 2012 at 20:36
  • Lexical classes and lexical strata also refer very often to other, unrelated phenomena. They are not the obvious answers to the OP's question.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 13:54
  • @MετάEd 'substrate' and 'superstrate' maybe, if there is a conquering culture. But that doesn't apply (I don't think to scientific latin/greek). Oh, also there's a fourth influx of vocab, erudite (but not technical) terminology in late middle/early modern English (14th-16thc)
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 0:42

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