Are you looking to purge your English wordstock of any linguistic influence from the last millennium? Do you yearn for the language of yore, the speechcraft of yesteryear? If so, you’re among a cohort of Germanic-lusting linguistic purists who adore Anglish, the imagined English that could have been — if only there weren’t so many bothersome borrowed words.
What is Anglish?
Anglish, known in some circles as Roots English, is a fringe language invention, movement, project — and one with a rich online community. Its proponents and promoters seek to return today’s “Mean English” to its essence. This doesn’t necessarily mean only stripping English of its 21st-century flair, with all of its selfies, wokeness and vaping. English linguistic purists are looking way further back with forlorn eyes to the bygone age of Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf, before Shakespeare and even the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The premise of the project is to opt for existing archaic or more contemporary Germanic words to replace borrowed non-Germanic ones — like in the word Germany (from the Latin Germania), which in Anglish becomes Theechland. If ever there were a clear example of linguistic purism, this movement, self-billed “as a means of recovering the Englishness of English and of restoring ownership of the language to the English people,” might just be it.
Anglish admirers wonder what English would be like without the introduction of heaps of Latin-derived words from Old Norman, a dialect of Old French, that followed the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century and became the language of culture and nobility. That’s when a new era of Anglo-Norman Middle English was ushered in. It adopted scores of words relating to the government and law, the church, and medicine. Language purists have bemoaned how Greek and Latin scientific terms seeped into English vocabulary during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In Anglish, there’s no more telephones or centuries — they’re farspeakers and hundredyears.
English linguistic purists are looking way further back with forlorn eyes to the bygone age of Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf, before Shakespeare and even the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
In addition to an extensive wordbook, or dictionary, that lists the Anglish equivalents of thousands of Mean English words, the Anglish online moot contains translations of famous works like the Gettysburg Speech: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this greatland, a new folkship, dreamt in freedom...” If you like combat factual and fictional, you’ll find articles written in Anglish about World Wye Two and Star Wyes.
The Anglish movement might read like satire, and that might not be the most unfair classification if you consider its creation. The name “Anglish“ was coined by humorist Paul Jennings in three articles titled “1066 and All Saxon” in Punch magazine in 1966. He imagined a world in which the Norman conquest had never happened.
One of the most significant offshoots of Anglish is “Ander-Saxon,” whose development and name are ascribed to science fiction writer Poul Anderson. It’s the variant of Anglish used in scientific literature—like in Uncleftish Beholding, Anderson’s 1989 work about basic atomic theory written in Anglish. In Ander-Saxon, chemical elements are firststuffs, molecules bulkbits. The text has garnered significant attention for how, well, strange it sounds; YouTubers have even taken it upon themselves to record readings of it.
Anglish as a named phenomenon might have existed for only a few decades, but its roots comfortably predate the past few generations. Before Jennings, writers like George Orwell espoused a Germanic-based English in the mid-20th century. A century before, Charles Dickens and philologist Williams Barnes argued for an English that was academic and scholarly but didn’t require a classical education to parse through.
In fact, Anglish can trace its roots back even further to the mid-16th and -17th century inkhorn controversy, which saw foreign Latinate words embraced by some writers and sharply rejected by others like Cambridge professor John Cheke, who viewed them as useless, unnecessarily identical to perfectly good non-borrowed counterparts: “I am of this opinion that our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges, wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.”
You Get a Loanword! You Get a Loanword!
It’s not at all uncommon for one language to absorb verbal bits and bytes from another. If you’ve ever drunk alcohol, eaten pizza or chocolate or experienced wanderlust or déjà-vu, you’re no stranger to borrowed words. It happens all the time in English and, too, in Spanish, where behind Latin, most words come from Arabic — the almohadas Spanish-speakers rest their heads on to sleep, the barrios they live in, and the albercas they swim in all trace their names’ history to the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. And so do eight thousand other words.
In Japanese, scores of English loanwords (gairaigo) have been “nipponized” into the Asian language’s vocabulary. The word for ice cream is aisukurīmu; for flight attendant (or cabin attendant), you get kyabin atendanto; and for fried potato (American French fries), it’s furaido potato.
Languages across the world are replete with foreign loanwords, a result of contact between groups of people who absorb elements of another’s culture — often as a result of military occupation, colonization, or trade and exploration. This absorption happens often when the borrower’s language doesn’t actually have a word to describe some part of the universe. English speakers throughout most of history, for example, never needed to name a burrito because they had never made, seen or eaten one.
Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be?
Anglish throughout the ages might not have been appreciated as much more than a satirical fringe movement, but in its push for linguistic purism, it’s far from alone. Royal academies and hardcore prescriptivists of languages left and right have been trying to root out foreign influence for centuries — much of it from English, which has permeated languages worldwide.
The French Académie française, founded in 1635, has an online campaign to “rehabilitate” the French language and replace encroaching English words like email with courriel and le best of with le meilleur de, for example. Icelanders are especially keen to keep English and Danish loanwords out and restore their language to its Old Norse and Old Icelandic roots; they’ve even got a government-sponsored Icelandic Language Day.
These efforts sometimes see more pushback than success, mostly because to survive, languages must change and expand. As cultures come in contact with one another, speakers pick up verbal habits that suit their linguistic needs better than their own languages can. And it’s not exactly easy to nix borrowed words from loanword-friendly languages like English when roughly half of its vocabulary comes from Latin and Romance languages like French. That’s why rooting out non-Germanic influences from English completely would be no small feat. And why it would sound so funny.
But then again, Anglish might be the language movement for you if you don’t mind altering everyday English’s linguistic twisted ladder — otherwise known in that blasphemous, bastardized modern-day English as “DNA.”