The English language is derived from a Germanic language – Old English (Anglo-Saxon). However, despite English’s clearly Germanic forms, structures and vocabulary, it also comprises a large number of Latinate and/or French words (being a Romance language, French is derived ultimately from Latin).
Around 1100 AD, with the Norman Conquest, English saw an influx of words from French. For centuries thereafter, French was the language spoken by the English ruling classes and was the official language of the Royal Court, whereas Anglo-Saxon was relegated to the lower classes.
For example, we can see the class distinction in the way nouns for meats are commonly different from, and unrelated to, those for the animals from which they are produced, with the animal commonly having a Germanic name and the meat having a French-derived noun - possibly due to the French-speaking elite being the consumers of the meat produced by the English-speaking lower classes:
deer = venison (Old French veneso(u)n)
ox or cow = beef (Old French boef)
swine = pork (Old French porc)
Sometimes French words replaced Old English words entirely:
crime replaced firen
uncle replaced eam
Other times, French and Old English components combined to form a new word: French gentle ( gentil ) and the Germanic man formed gentleman.
This influx of French words resulted in Middle English. Then, in the Renaissance, words by the thousands were imported directly from Latin. For this reason, English is today a mongrel language, mixing Germanic, French and Latinate roots.
Sometimes, in fact, we have three closely related words, one each from Anglo-Saxon, from Latin via French, and directly from Latin:
royal (from French roi)
regal (from Latin rex, regis)
This means that the English language contains an unusual amount of synonyms and that for many Anglo-Saxon-derived words we can find, whether directly from Latin or via French, a Latinate equivalent:
Anger/wrath = rage/ire
Bodily = corporal
Brotherly = fraternal
Leave = egress/exit/depart
Thinking = pensive
Dog = canine
Come = arrive
Ask = enquire
As a (very rough) general rule, words derived from the Germanic ancestors of English are shorter, more concrete and more direct, whereas their Latinate counterparts are longer, more abstract and are regarded as more elegant or educated.
However, such synonyms usually have a slightly different meaning, enabling the English language to be used in a very flexible way to express fine variations or shades of thought.
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By M. Birch,
Business Language Translators