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Accent Reduction – Why Does English have 2 or 3 Words for the Same Thing

Blog published 08062020 | By Dr. Antonia Johnson

Accent Reduction – Why Does English have 2 or 3 Words for the Same Thing

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

How did English come to have these different words?  That’s the topic.

You already know this adage or advice: If you understand why, you will understand how. Thus, I think if you understand why English has different words and where they came from, you will understand better how to choose which word to use.  More about that later.  But first, where did these different words come from?

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

In the 9th century invaders of the England island were speaking another Germanic offshoot, Old Norse.  Instead of the invaders imposing their language, they married local women and switched to English.  However, they were adults, who often don’t pick up new languages easily. That is especially true when there are no schools and no media, and you re in an oral society. So, they spoke a modified or changed Old English.  Their children heard as much of the modified English as “Old English” and the English language changed accordingly.

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

Then starting in the 16th century, there came to be a good number of  educated people who spoke English while living in a country with more than one language. These people, called Anglophones, began to develop English as a vehicle for complex and sophisticated writing.  Notably,at that time, it became popular to pick words from Latin to give the language more prestige and  to make it more high class.

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 multiple words which allowed people to express ideas with different degrees of formality. 

In like manner are ‘triplets (3), “kingly” is English, “royal” is French, “regal” is Latin.

Then there are doublets (2) such as “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 two words for food?  The answer lies in the division of labor in Norman England.   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.

And  an important last comment.  Latin came to be designated by scientists, people of medicine, and the law to be the basis for each profession’s or discipline’s new vocabulary.  Thus the new terms or word were made from Latin words or syllables for prefixes, suffixes and root words. 

Let us circle back to you, speaking and writing English.  You get to choose which of several words to use.  You might choose on the basis of formality, for example, conversation with friend vs. presentation. Thus you would choose “help,” or “aid,” or  “assist”  In a similar manner, professions such as sciences likely choose “adjacent” instead of “next to”.  In “adjacent,” the Latin prefix, suffix and root are found in many of the words of their discipline.  Native-born English speakers and nonnative-born speakers  learn the patterns as they learn the vocabulary of their professions.  Research articles and conferences are often conducted in English to the international community.

-frpub042016_159   copyright 2020 Clear Talk Mastery, Inc

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