January 11, 2009

Germanic vs. Latin word choices

When I was in college, I had a great lecture on the difference between Germanic and Latin words and how they pertain to poetry.  I'm going to do the best I can at remembering (so if I mess up a few details, please forgive me), but the general idea is very useful not only to poets but to all writers.

The difference between these two types of words can elicit all kinds of emotions.  Germanic based words tend to be longer/multi-syllabic, more technical, and a bit rougher sounding.  Latin based words are less harsh than Germanic words.  The difference between the two is kind of similar to the difference between "happy chords" and "sad chords" on the guitar.  Each choice elicits a different emotion.  A few examples:



The general/loose rule (for practicality's sake and not for technical sake) is that if something has a soft sound, and doesn't have a lot of syllables, it is a Latin-based word.  If it sounds a little more jolting and sounds like a word you'd find in a medical journal, then it is a Germanic based word.

I purposefully choose certain Latin words to soften a certain parts of my poetry pieces if I want to highlight mixed emotions.  If I want to catch the reader's attention in a mainly Latin-based poem, I use a Germanic word.  The change in the sound and/or appearance of the two different word types alerts the reader subconsciously to stop, regulate and listen (okay maybe it's not Hammer time).  

When I'm ending a poem on a different note than I began, or if I want the reader to really sit with a line, I will change the word type.  In one of my love poems, I used the word "saliva" after using some pretty images and easily flowing words.  I did this on purpose, and it jilted some of my readers.  Thus, my word choice was successful at doing the work I wanted it to do.  I wanted the readers to pay attention to the last lines of my poem.  They sat uncomfortably with the word, and (hopefully) remembered and thought about it later.  Sometimes metaphors, similies, rhymes, and other devices just don't quite portray exactly what I am trying to say or have the reader feel.  I like writing poems that elicit strong emotions--playing with diction is one of my favorite ways to create this effect.

Not only poets can benefit from these word choices, a novelist may want a scary, gruff character to use Germanic based words in dialogue (and likewise, a softer, more feminine character to use more Latin-based words).  Even though Germanic words tend to be harsher, if one cleverly inserts them into a Latin-based piece, one may be able to have that Germanic word become very beautiful.  This switch up will surprise the reader and make them feel like your piece is interesting and different from all the other books they've read in your particular genre.

Another way to use the difference between word types is in this following example:

Let's say you have a serial killer with a soft side as one of your characters, you may highlight this personal trait of his by inserting some soft words into his speech at a time where the reader may not expect it.  Maybe this serial killer is fond of a particular child that he would never harm, so he talks to her with kind words, whereas he talks to others whom he might kill in another way.  Or maybe he's about to kill someone, and for a moment he has second thoughts.  His speech may reflect this, as he alternates between harsh and soft words.  You may even be able to make a Latin word sound scary, if you place it in dialogue in a murder scene.  Likewise, if you have a very feminine character who suddenly becomes very pissed off, you may want to throw some Germanic words into her vocabulary to highlight her current emotional state.

Another way to use this dichotomy is if you shove a pretty Latin word into a rough sounding paragraph (or piece of dialogue) to try to make that Latin word ugly (did the word "shove" just make you feel awkward?).  If you succeed, you may be able to elicit a confused or disturbed response from the reader.  This is important for mystery or suspense books, where you want to alert the reader or create foreshadowing, but you don't want to tell them what is going on quite yet.

Understanding the difference between these two types of words can greatly benefit one's writing, as it is a powerful and overlooked literary device.  Pitting these two types of words against one another may be able to help you create the emotional drama you want to have in a scene, but just can't seem to figure out using normal literary devices like plot and setting.

So next time you type, think about what area of Europe your words come from.  :)


At January 12, 2009 at 8:23 AM , Blogger Dorinda Ohnstad said...


How interesting. While I'm writing (and particularly when I'm editing) I certainly think of word choice. However, my thought process is focused more on which sounds better. Now you've given me an additional tool to determine which sounds better, and more importantly why. In other words there can be more method to the madness. Thanks.

At January 15, 2009 at 9:22 AM , Blogger June Rodriguez said...

Wow! You sure did learn a lot in college Amy(tongue in cheek). I'm really glad that you are willing to share it with us. I don't quite understand the difference in the language words themselves but I understand the essence of what you are saying. For me it may be the difference between the words I have to look up to make sure I have spelled them correctly vs. the words that come easily to me. Thanks Amy. Your posts always take me to new directions.


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