Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 1 September 2007

A company called Optimum has written drawing attention to a website it runs <br /> which analyses passages of writing and highlights the words that come from Old English in blue.

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A company called Optimum has written drawing attention to a website it runs

which analyses passages of writing and highlights the words that come from Old English in blue.

A company called Optimum has written drawing attention to a website it runs which analyses passages of writing and highlights the words that come from Old English in blue. Very pretty. They have posted up some examples from famous writers free at www.optimumcomms.co.uk. ‘Surviving words from Old English have a special power to communicate,’ says their introductory blurb. ‘Great writers, especially poets, have always understood this.’

By Optimum’s analysis, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four takes 74.2 per cent of its words from Old English, only a nose ahead of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at 74.1 per cent. The percentage for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is 76.9, compared to 78.3 percent for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and 78.4 per cent for a helping of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. But no one would reckon ‘Prufrock’ simpler than A Christmas Carol.

Nineteen Eighty-Four scored as low as 74.2 per cent because words such as April, clocks, effort, escape, slipped, vile, prevent and swirl do not come from Old English. Swirl may come from Low German, but the point is that the prose could scarcely be plainer. No word is simpler than clock for the object denoted. It just happens to come from mediaeval Latin, which might have borrowed it from Celtic.

The people at Optimum quote Orwell’s judgment that ‘bad writers are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.’

Orwell’s gripe was really with people who used ‘pretentious diction’ such as ‘expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated’ instead of plainer words derived from Old English. Even so, predict is not necessarily more pretentious than foretell; after all, the demotic band Kaiser Chiefs had a hit with ‘I Predict a Riot’.

Orwell in the same essay (‘Politics and the English Language’), also complained about words like ‘objective, categorical, effective, virtual, constitute, utilise, eliminate’ which ‘dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.’

Optimum says: ‘Optimum Communications Development Ltd specialises in the art and science of communicating with varied audiences. Over recent years, the company has focused on developing new methods to understand and assist effective communication in English.’ When I fed that into its own analysis machinery, it declared that only 47.06 of the words derived from Old English.

I recommend the rest of Orwell’s essay.