Writing for non-writers, part the second – let’s speak Anglo-Saxon!

So: in my the first part of this article, I talked about various bits of advice that I found useful for writing that you, dear reader, might also find of help – whether you style yourself as a writer, or even a Writer, or not. I also promised to explain why speaking Anglo-Saxon was the best tip I had.

Don’t worry, gentle reader. I’m not talking about the sweary words here. Actually, there’s a body of evidence that ‘fuck’ is from later on than the Anglo-Saxon period, and first appears in English in the 14th century in joke names, as this amusing article relates. Also, I’m not really going to go into etymology or quote chunks of Beowulf at you – I wussed out of English and did law instead, remember, and all my pals that did the English Language course at Edinburgh Uni suggested I dodged a bullet when it came to all that hey nonny nonny kind of crap.

The Danelaw By S. Bollmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4183574

My researches go no deeper than having read Melvyn Bragg’s excellent book-of-the-tv-series, The Adventure of English. In it, Bragg relates how a really surprisingly small group of Dutch pirates came over here, took the best jobs and houses, and started imposing their language on everyone else. A key development was the later invasion of the Vikings, who came over here, taking our best jobs etc. and settled in the northern part of what’s now called England.

This later immigration introduced a lot of Norse words but also, crucially, meant the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons had to create a lingua franca to trade, which in layman’s terms (which is, frankly, the only language I understand here) a lot of these long Germanic endings to words got knocked off, leaving English shorter, flexible, and ready to assimilate words from other languages in a peculiarly effective way.

That wasn’t the end of immigration to the British Isles of course. Indeed, you could almost say there’s been a history of it: some coming over here, taking our jobs etc. at the point of a sword, others helplessly drifting across in inadequate craft, at the mercy of gangsters as much as the treacherous currents of the English Channel (as the English call it: the French call it La Manche). The next lot to cross La Manche, the Normans, were definitely the point-of-a-sword variety.

Even we Scots get taught about 1066 and all that, when the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons, who in turn had just got back from defeating the Vikings and were a bit knackered as a result. We Scots should know about it, incidentally, given that many of our modern nobles are descended from Norman nobility, Robert the Bruce, or de Brus, being a prime example.

Anyhoo. The key takeaway from this is that English, literally, acquired a whole new layer of meaning. Norman French was derived from Latin. Similarly, the church at the time used its own version of Latin. So Latin-derived words started being used more and more to describe things that already had an Anglo-Saxon word for them.

Sometimes it’s easy to see why different words were used for different meanings. For example, the Normans gave

Cows. Or coos, if you want to be all Scottish about it

us words for the cooked version of the animal: beef; pork; mutton. The Anglo-Saxons, who were in the fields tending the animals more than eating them with their new Norman masters up in the manor house, gave us the names of the animals when they were still right way up: cow; pig; sheep. But Anglo-Norman words were also often the language of power.

In government, in parliament, there was frequently a requirement for linguistic precision. See what I did there? Some of these words don’t have an easy, shorter version. Some do. ‘requirement’ just means ‘need,’ more or less. ‘Frequently’ – I could have used ‘often.’ There are many, many, examples like this, where English has two words that more or less mean the same thing – and it’s that ‘more or less’ that gives the mother tongue its depth and richness.

Here’s the thing though. If you’re writing something grown-up, the temptation to reach for the longer word of Norman or Latin origin is very, very, strong. Why? It’s the language of power, but also the language of higher education. You usually learn the Anglo-Saxon words first. If you’re writing a technical report, you want to show you know more than what you learnt in the playground.

We can all think of examples we’ve read – and possibly even written – that suffer from this. Long, complicated sentences, using long, Latin-derived words with lots of syllables in them that we wouldn’t use if we were speaking. Reading your work aloud, one of the tips from the first part of this article, can help sift some of that out. But thinking about shorter, Anglo-Saxon words that mean the same really helps.

More than that, the Anglo-Saxon words, because they go to the core of your language, often pack more of an emotional punch. Think of when you speak to a child who’s fallen and hurt her knee. Do you use long words to comfort her? Of course not. Think of a time when you were angry and shouted at, say, a politician on the telly. Did you reach for the Norman French word? Bet you didn’t. Although, interestingly, ‘idiot’ is of Latin origin.

Some examples of what I’m talking about, then. Songwriters sometimes use longer words just to make the scansion, but how about this for an opening verse from His Bobness:

When the rain

Adele - Wikipedia
Adele. No, she just sang it.

Is blowing in your face
And the whole world
Is on your case
I could offer you
A warm embrace
To make you feel my love

Bob Dylan, ‘Make You Feel My Love.’


Politicians, too, know this trick, or some of them, anyway. Winston Churchill was a writer long before he became a wartime PM. Bragg in his book uses as an example the last part of Churchill’s famous wartime speech. Incidentally, when looking this up on Wikipedia, I came across an article which set the speech in context. Morale in the country was down: and one of the sources described the mood of ordinary people in this way: “This is not our war – this is a war of the high-up people who use long words and have different feelings.”

In that context, Churchill’s speech became critical in raising morale. Here’s the famous closing passage:

‘We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…’

Stirring stuff, even now, isn’t it? Nary a long, Anglo-Norman, word from this high-up person. Anglo-Saxon almost all the way.

Recently, I came across a more modern example of this, but before I give it to you, I want to say three things about it:

  1. I’m not comparing Nicola Sturgeon to Winston Churchill.
  2. I’m not comparing the current pandemic to the Second World War.
  3. You may have political views on Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic, indyref2, etc., etc. Can I suggest to you, in the politest possible terms, to keep them to yourself this one time? This is about the writing skill used by Ms Sturgeon’s speechwriter, not any of that other stuff. Please. Go rant on Twitter if you need to let off steam. Everyone else does! Oh, and a fourth thing, since I got pulled up about it on Twitter:
  4. Just because I’m saying something is skilfully written that doesn’t mean it wasn’t heartfelt.

OK. Subject to all of that, on 22nd September Scotland’s First Minister, in common with other political leaders elsewhere, was in a tight spot. Infection rates were climbing. Our summer of – well, not love, exactly, but slightly less restrictions – was coming to an end with a bump. It was time to face the music and dance.

Nicola Sturgeon’s way to deal with all of this stuff has been to lead from the front. There’s barely a day goes past when she’s not addressing the nation at a press briefing or in Parliament, detailing where we’re at in terms of the virus and what the Government proposes we do about it. On this particular day, she was announcing that tighter measures were inevitable. At the end of a longish speech, here’s what she said to Parliament:

‘Presiding Officer,

All of this is incredibly tough – and six months on, it only gets tougher.

But we should never forget that humanity has come through even bigger challenges than this one – and it did so without the benefits of modern technology that allow us to stay connected while physically apart.

And though it doesn’t feel like this now, this pandemic will pass.

It won’t last forever and one day, hopefully soon, we will be looking back on it, not living through it.

So though we are all struggling with this – and believe me, we are all struggling – let’s pull together.

Let’s keep going, try to keep smiling, keep hoping and keep looking out for each other.

Be strong, be kind and let’s continue to act out of love and solidarity.

I will never be able to thank all of you enough for the sacrifices you have made so far.

And I am sorry to have to ask for more.

But if we stick with it – and if we stick together – I do know we will get through this.’


Anglo-Saxon – it’s the way forward! (Incidentally, if you want the longer version of my course on this, it’s being rerun by CLT on 8th March next year.)

…and for those of you who prefer Nicola as voiced by Janey Godley…




  1. I wonder if English some day will be supplanted as the universal language. I recently watched Nobel, a real good tv series. In scenes involving Norwegian and Chinese politicians, they spoke English to one another.

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