Ernest Hemingway famously favored Anglo-Saxon words and phrases over Latin or French ones: thus “tell” and not “inform.” Scholars, critics and Nobel Prize committees have analyzed passages such as
“What do you have to eat?” the boy asked.
“A pot of yellow rice with fish. Do you want some.”
“No, I will eat at home; do you want me to make the fire?”
“No, I will make it later on, or I may eat the rice cold.”
Not a single word from French or Latin; not a single subordinate clause, no indirect discourse, no adverbs, … .
Some trace this aspect of his style to Hemingway’s association with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes and modernist writers. Others trace it to his first job as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star and the newspaper’s style guide: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”
However that may be, Hemingway was true to his code and he set a standard for American writing. Still, it is often impossible to say whether a word or phrase is Anglo-Saxon or not. For example, the multi-word sound has four meanings each derived from a different language: “sound” as in “Long Island Sound” (Norse), as in “of sound mind” (German), as in “sound the depths of the sea” (French), as in “sound of my voice” (Latin). To add to the confusion, the fell in “one fell swoop” is from the Norman French (same root as felon) though nothing sounds more Anglo-Saxon than fell. Among the synonyms pigeon and dove, it is the former that is French and the latter that is Anglo-Saxon. Nothing sounds more Germanic than skiff but it comes from the French esquif. So where can you find 100% Anglo-Saxon words lurking about? Mystère.
Trades are a good source of Anglo-Saxon words — baker, miller, driver, smith, shoe maker, sawyer, wainwright, wheelwright, millwright, shipwright; playwright doesn’t count, it’s a playful coinage from the early 17th century introduced by Ben Jonson. Barnyard animals also tend to have old English origins — cow, horse, sheep, goat, chicken, lamb, … Body parts too — foot, arm, leg, eye, ear, nose, throat, head, … .
Professions tend to have Latin or French names — doctor, dentist, professor, scientist, accountant, … ; teacher, lawyer, writer and singer are exceptions though.
Military terms are not a good source at all; they are relentlessly French — general, colonel, lieutenant, sergeant, corporal, private, magazine, platoon, regiment, bivouac, caisson, soldier, army, admiral, ensign, marine and on and on.
However, there is a rich trove of Anglo-Saxon words to be found in the calendars of the Anglican and Catholic Churches. The 40 days of Lent begin on Ash Wednesday and the last day before Lent is Mardi Gras. Lent and Ash Wednesday are Anglo-Saxon in origin but Mardi Gras is a French term. Literally, Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, and the Tuesday before Lent is now often called Fat Tuesday in the U.S. But there is a legitimate, traditional Anglo-Saxon name for it, namely Shrove Tuesday. Here shrove refers to the sacrament of Confession and the need to have a clean slate going into Lent; the word shrove is derived from the verb shrive which means “to hear confession.” The expression “short shrift” is also derived from this root: a short confession was given to prisoners about to be executed. Another genuinely English version of Mardi Gras is Pancake Tuesday, which, like Mardi Gras, captures the fact that the faithful need to fatten up before the fasting of Lent. Raised Episcopalian and one with a strong attraction to the ritual and pageantry of Catholicism, Hemingway was in fact listed as a Catholic for his 2nd marriage, the one to Pauline Pfeiffer. Still Hemingway never got to use the high church Anglo-Saxon term Shrove Tuesday (or even Pancake Tuesday) in his writings. On the other hand, Hemingway always wrote “Holy Ghost” and never would have cottoned to the recent shift to the Latinate “Holy Spirit.”
Staying with high church Christianity — Lent goes on for forty days until Easter Sunday; the period of Eastertide begins with Palm Sunday which celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the week of Passover. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder dinner. Thus, in Italian, for example, the word for Passover and the word for Easter are the same; if the context is not clear, one can distinguish them as “Pasqua” and “Pasqua Ebraica.” Something similar applies in French and Spanish. So how did English usage come to be so different? Mystère.
Simply put Easter Sunday is named for a Pagan goddess. In the Middle Ages, the author of the first history of the English people, the Venerable Bede, wrote that the Christians in England adopted the name the local Pagans were giving to a holiday in honor of their goddess of the spring Ēastre – you cannot get more Anglo-Saxon than that.
In addition to Eastertide, the Anglo-Saxon root tide is also used for other Christian holiday periods – Whitsuntide (Pentecost), Yuletide (Christmas), … . This venerable meaning of tide as a period of time is also the one that figures in the expression
Neither tide nor time waits for no man.
Nothing to do with maritime tides whether high, low or neap. Hemingway would likely have avoided this phrase, though, because of its awkward, archaic double negative.
Sometimes French words serve to protect us from the brutal frankness of the Anglo-Saxon. Classic examples of this are beef and pork which are derived from the French boeuf and porc. When studying a German menu, it is always disconcerting to have to choose between “cow flesh” and “pig flesh.” Even Hemingway would have to agree.
An area where Hemingway is on more solid ground is that of grammar. The structure of English is basically Germanic. The Norman period introduced a large vocabulary of French and Latin words, but French had very little influence on English grammar. The basic reason for this is that Norman French used Latin as the language for the administration of the country; thus the Domesday Book and the Magna Carta were written in Latin. Since French was the language of the court, however, English legal vocabulary to this day employs multiple French words and phrases such as the splendid “Oyez, Oyez.”
While the grammar of English can be classified as Germanic, there are some key structural elements that are Celtic in origin. An important example is the “useless do” as in “do you have a pen?” English is one of the only languages that inserts an extra verb, in this case do, to formulate a question; typically in other languages, one says “have you a pen?” or “you have a pen?” with a questioning tone of voice. Another Celtic import is the progressive tense as in “I am going to the store,” which can express a mild future tense or a description of current activity. This progressive tense is an especial challenge for students in ESL courses.
Danish invaders such as the Jutes have also contributed to English structure – for example, there is the remarkably simple way English has of conjugating verbs: contrast the monotony of “I love, you love, it loves, we love, you love, they love” with other languages.
When languages collide like this, one almost invariably emerges as the “winner” in terms of structure with the others’ contributing varying amounts of vocabulary and with their speakers’ influencing the pronunciation and music of the language. The English language that emerged finally at the time of Chaucer was at its base Anglo-Saxon but it had structural adaptations from Celtic and Norse languages as well as a vast vocabulary imported whole from Latin and French. This new language appeared suddenly on the scene in the sense that during all this time it wasn’t a language with a literature like the other languages of Britain – Old English, Latin, French, Welsh, Cornish, … ; so it just simmered for centuries but eventually the actual spoken language of the diverse population forced its way to the surface.
Hemingway himself spent many years in places where romance languages are spoken – Paris, Madrid, Havana, … . Maybe this helped insulate him from the galloping changes in American and English speech and writing and let him ply his craft in relative peace. How else could he have ended a tragic wartime love story with a sentence so perfect but so matter-of-fact as “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”