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Accent Reduction – The History & Backstory to English’s Wonderful Triplets and Doublets

Accent Reduction – The History & Backstory to English’s Wonderful Triplets and Doublets


Have you ever wondered why English has so many words that come from other languages?

Have you ever wondered why English has words – often two or three- for the same thing.  These triplets and doublets allow us to express ideas with different degrees of formality.  For example “help” is English root, “aid” comes from French, “assist” is Latin.

Here’s a brief back story for these important characteristics of English vocabulary:

Over centuries, English has been constructed with words from other lands and peoples.  It started out as essentially a kind of German.  Importantly, when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (and also Frisians) brought Germanic speech to English, the island was already inhabited by people who spoke Celtic languages – today represented by Welsh and Irish, and Breton across the Channel in France.

In the 9th century invaders were speaking another Germanic offshoot, Old Norse.  Instead of imposing their language, they married local women and switched to English.  However, since they were adults, who don’t pick up new languages easily (no schools and no media, and an oral society), they spoke “bad” Old English.  Their children heard as much of the modified English as “Old English” and the language changed accordingly.

After the Norse came the French.  The Normans – descended from the Vikings—conquered England and ruled for several centuries.  That meant English picked up 10,000 new words.

Starting in the 16th century, educated Anglophones (or people who speak English in a country with more than one language) began to develop English as a vehicle for complex and sophisticated writing.  At that time, it became popular to pick words from Latin to lend the language more prestige, to make it more high class, so to speak.

At this time English acquired such words as crucified, fundamental, definition, and conclusion.

And from this time, English had thousands of new words competing with native English words for the same things.  As mentioned in the beginning of this article, one result was triplets which allowed us to express ideas with different degrees of formality.  “Help” is English, “aid” is French, “assist” is Latin.

In like manner, “kingly” is English, “royal” is French, “regal” is Latin.

At the same time, doublets appeared.  “Begin” is English, “commence” is French.

“Want” is English, “desire” is French.

This double vocabulary is especially common for culinary/food vocabulary.

For example, we kill a “cow” or a “pig” (English).  From that we cook “beef” or “pork” (French).

Why?  The answer lies in the division of labor in Norman English.   That is, English-speaking laborers did the slaughtering or killing for the wealthier French speakers.

Thus, the different ways of referring to meat depended on one’s place in the society or broad community.   These distinctions come to us in the English vocabulary today.

Be sure to watch our English Speech Tips videos and Accent Reduction Tip videos  for more English pronunciation and accent reduction exercise.

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