plain English

Plainness and purity: wordcraft for the loreless

We continue the discussion of Plain English in January with a guest post by Jonathan Marks. Jonathan lives in Poland and works as an author, teacher trainer and translator.


William Barnes (1801–1886), best known for his Dorset dialect poetry, was also a priest and schoolteacher, who realised that obscure vocabulary derived from Latin, French and Greek was an educational, cultural and social barrier to the local populace, and set about reviving or inventing words based on Anglo-Saxon. He wrote:

“English has become a more mongrel speech by the needless inbringing of words from Latin, Greek and French, instead of words which might have been found in its older form, or might have been formed from its own roots and stems, as wanting words have been formed in German and other purer tongues. Thence English has become so much harder to learn, that, in its foreign-worded fullness, it is a speech only for the more learned, and foreign to unschooled men, so that the sermon and the book are half-lost to their minds.”

He’s walking his talk here, by using vocabulary of Germanic derivation such as needless, inbringing, wanting, fullness, unschooled.

He recommended the use of Germanic forms, where these existed, in preference to words derived from Latin and Greek sources, and the creation of neologisms where there were no pre-existing Germanic forms. Here are a few examples, with the standard form on the left and the Barnes recommendation on the right:

eloquence        wordcraft
ignorant        loreless
school            lorehouse
literature        booklore
omnibus        folkwain
flexible        bendsome
horizon        skyline
ambiguous        twymeaning
democracy        folkdom
polygamist        manywedder
photograph        sunprint
perambulator        push-wainling
ornithology        birdlore
astronomy        starlore
constellation        starhoard
plagiarism        thought-theft
sophistry        wordcunning

This is only a sample; he rediscovered, reconstructed and invented hundreds of words from Anglo-Saxon and/or modern German models.

Barnes’ motivation was democratic rather than primarily linguistic: to forge an English that was accessible to the common people. He wasn’t entirely consistent (for example, push is derived from French) but, more importantly, he allowed his admirable linguistic awareness to take precedence over his primary purpose. Surely, even in 19th-century rural Dorset, school was a familiar word, regardless of its Graeco-Latin origin, whereas lorehouse would have required a considerable learning effort? And for someone who understood what a constellation was, wasn’t the word constellation just as learnable as starhoard?

He sought plainness in etymological purity – misguidedly, but in doing so he alerts us to a possible alternative English in which we can see a sunprint of a folkwain coming over the skyline as it takes children to the lorehouse to study birdlore and starlore.

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Jonathan Marks

1 Comment

  • A very interesting post!We have discussed it with my students together with my new reading lessons on Aleph by Paulo Coelho.Thank you!

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