Anglish: A Brexiteer’s lingua franca?

Lili Bidwell 25 March 2017

"Unlike most nations, we no longer "own" our language. The Anglish/New English project is intended as a means of recovering the Englishness of English and of restoring ownership of the language to the English people"

Whilst you would be forgiven for thinking this statement comes straight from the latest UKIP manifesto, it is in fact a quotation from The Anglish Moot, a fan-page promoting the use of the 'Anglish' language — that is, English with all foreign borrowings stripped away.

Originally coined as a joke by humourist Paul Jennings, the notion of Anglish — a portmanteau of 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'English' — seems to have developed a certain cult following. Unperturbed by the fact that half of all our vocabulary (pardon, word-stock) comes from Latin or French sources, these purists have endeavoured to draft a manifesto in their desired tongue. Unsurprisingly, it is as incomprehensible as it is ridiculous. Blaming 1066 and 'the hild of Hastings' for this linguistic contamination, the Moot moves on to theorise how 'the high score of beclouding Latinise words is an unneeded inkshed'. 

Whilst it is hard not to treat such statements with mockery, more serious attempts have been made to prevent foreign imports from entering our language. Fighting against the 'needless inbringing' of Latin and French terms, popular nineteenth-century poet William Barnes coined a considerable number of scientific words based on Old English, such as birdlore for 'ornithology' or bendsome for 'flexible'. Similarly George Orwell had his reservations, which is all the more strange in light of his dystopian novel 1984 where the brain-numbingly simplistic language 'Newspeak' serves to control and severely limit freedom of thought.

Sadly, we cannot reduce this inward attitude towards language to the nationalist zeitgeist of the late 19th and early 20th century, as Donald Trump has proved. One of his first actions upon assuming the Presidency was to take down the Spanish-language version of the White House website, acting swiftly on his 2015 observation that "this is a country where we speak English, not Spanish' — despite the fact that the USA contains more Spanish speakers than Spain itself.

As well as feeding a nationalist agenda, reducing English to its 'origins' would lose some very useful characteristics that makes it such an expressive language. Broadly speaking, English can be split into three levels of formality or 'registers' — Anglo Saxon, French and Latin. This is significant, given how we all use language differently according to the situation. Think of a supervision essay. When was the last time you heard someone say 'henceforth' in the pub?  With this useful distinction, we can choose between wrong, false and incorrect depending on how politely we wish to set someone right.

Even when this register distinction does not apply, the presence of Latin cognates may enrich our vocabulary by providing nuanced shades of meaning. Take for example the adjectives 'maternal' and 'motherly'. Both refer to women, but are used in different ways. While the Latin root has a more neutral use (maternal grandparents, maternal care), the 'pure' form carries an emotive charge, connoting instead love, protection or kindliness (motherly love, motherly protection). If communication is the primary role of any language, then English can owe a large part of its prestige to its ability to get across the complex mix of needs and emotions that characterise all human interaction.

However, this accommodating attitude towards foreign words does not extend to our Gallic neighbours — and the language of love is suffering as a result. It is well documented that English has seeped into many different areas of French usage, especially in the fields of technology, fashion and administration. However, L'Académie française, the group of 40 academics that polices the French language, is relentless in its persecution of such integration. No sooner does an English term begins to take root in France that the Académie will be on hand to suggest alternatives. And, the replacement word often has a bizarre history. 'Ramdam' — suggested as a suitably French version of the English 'buzz' — actually comes from an Arabic term describing the hullaballoo that traditionally follows the period of fasting during Ramadan. However, it is the nature of languages to change and adapt to the world around it, and many of these terms — such as ordiphone in place of smartphone — fail to catch on. In fact, such is the militancy of the Académie that in 1994, a law was passed (La loi Toubon) that banned all non-French words from official documents, and unbelievably, flouting the rules could theoretically be punished with a jail sentence.

I understand that there is a strong element of pride in the French linguistic tradition. But for as long as speakers prevent its natural evolution to accommodate modern concepts, English will continue to fill in all those gaps left behind by such conservatism. English may be 'about as pure as a cribhouse whore', as James Nicoll so poetically put it, but it is all the more powerful because of it.