Friday, October 15, 2004

Is it Better to Write in Latin or in Anglo-Saxon?

Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style (Indiana University Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1954), pp. 46-48. I have broken Blanshard’s one paragraph into three.

The question has often been canvassed whether it is better to write, in the main, in Latin or Anglo-Saxon. There is no doubt that one’s writing will have a different mood or atmosphere as the one element or the other predominates. A critic has suggested that if you never want to fail in dignity, you should always use the generic word rather than the specific; do not say, "If any man strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other"; say, "If any injury is done to thy person, do not indulge in retaliation." There is a clear difference in the tone of these two; but you will note that in converting from the specific to the general, the author has automatically translated into Latin.

Both components in the language are important; we could not do without either. But just because philosophy runs to generality, and has therefore a natural bent for the Latin, the reader is the more surprised and pleased when he finds it written in the homelier idiom. Of course many writers have never thought of asking whether their writing is predominantly Roman or Saxon. It might pay them to do so.

Raleigh thought that "imperfect acquaintance with the Latin element in English is the cause of much diffuse writing and mixed metaphor. If you talk nonsense in Saxon you are found out at once; you have a competent judge in every hearer. But put it into Latin and the nonsense masquerades as profundity of abstract thought." Unfortunately, the mask may deceive even oneself.