On November 5, 2022, I will be one of several presenters at the Plainfield (Illinois) Public Library’s day-long event for writers, running from 10:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. You can read about the individual events, and register for them, by clicking here. As you can see, my presentation is titled The Power of F Words.
For almost two years I’ve been blogging about various aspects of my novel, The F Words, including such topics as Poetry, Writing from the Middle, English Teacher Hero, Humor, Friendship, Minor Characters, and Bilingualism. In addition to book-analysis topics, I’ve also written about how, when in my teens and twenties, I participated in and helped build political protests. (See The Gift of Fire.)
What I haven’t written about is how a small two-hour-credit course I took when I was nineteen is important to The F Words. The course was titled “The History of the English Language,” and what I learned about that fascinating topic has stayed with me all my life. Not only stayed with me, but came bubbling to the surface when I started to write The F Words. Came to the surface and permeated the book, both its plot and its theme — and that is part of what I’ll be talking about in The Power of F Words.
To be very, very succinct, what I learned in that college course was that English is an Anglo-Saxon language but that, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, our language became very influenced by the French. In addition, with the growth and expansion of the British Empire, English began to import words from other languages around the world. Typhoon, amok, bandana, coffee, khaki, shampoo, rattan, hickory — the list is hundreds of thousands of words long.
So what? you might ask.
So this: despite the fact that our language comes from Anglo-Saxon, today words of Anglo-Saxon origin comprise only a small percent of our vocabulary: somewhere between 1% and 4% of all English words.
Less than four percent.
But wait. Don’t despair. These words of Old English origin are extremely powerful. They are among the first words a child learns: Mama, Dada, bird, book, tree, milk, me, more. They are the words we use most often in everyday speech. In fact, it’s estimated that of the 2,000 words we use most in everyday speech, 70- 80% of them are words of Anglo-Saxon origin. These words are fundamental to us: to how we feel, what we think, what we want to share and say.
Words of Anglo-Saxon origin, unlike words of French origin, are visceral, not intellectual. They express our gut reactions. Our fears, our hopes, our relationships, our sense of right and wrong. For example: alive, always, baby, bend, care, cook, darling, die, doom, drunk, dumb . . . all the way to yard, yawn, and yell. (Z was not much used until after 1066, when the French influence began.)
Unlike words of French origin, which are multisyllabic and full of vowels, words of Anglo-Saxon origin tend to contain one vowel surrounded by a cluster of consonants: bath, brother, chicken, drink, knife, knot, marsh, night, plough, sister, sword, thimble, walk. Many Anglo-Saxon words kind of explode from the mouth — maybe to show that the speaker means what she says and had better be taken seriously.
The remaining Anglo-Saxon words in our vocabulary begin with almost every letter of the alphabet (not J, because that wasn’t around before the year 1000 CE). But I noticed, way back when taking the course on the history of the English language, that many words of Old English origin began with fricatives. A fricative is a consonant sound produced by forcing breath through a narrow opening, as when we say words starting with F or TH. It is this force of air that makes F words sound and feel forceful.
To some, all of this was esoteric knowledge, but to me it was fascinating information that seemed fundamental to one aspiring to be a writer. Thus, this information stayed with me and, as I said, bubbled to the surface when I began to write The F Words.
If you read The F Words you will sense the importance of Anglo-Saxon to our language and to the things that are important in life. And if you want to learn about this subject in more detail and happen to live in northern Illinois, then come to the Plainfield Public Library on November 5, 2022, and participate in the writing events, which go on from 10:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. My talk on The Power of F Words starts at 1:30 p.m.
The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.