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  • Small Latin and less Greek were good enough for Shakespeare, but some Brits want to rid English of its classical roots

    Three town councils in England have banned Latin words and phrases common in English because, as the folks in Bournemouth put it, "Not everyone knows Latin." Even worse, Latin's a problem in Bournemouth no matter what language you speak: "Many readers do not have English as their first language so using Latin can be particularly difficult."

    Banned from this seaside Dorset city of 163,000 with its seven miles of sandy beaches are eg and ie, annoying abbreviations that now must be replaced with the fully-articulated English for example and that is.

    Gone from Salisbury, best-known for Stonehenge, are ad hoc, ergo and QED (Latin for ergo, sort of). And ex officio's officially out in Fife, whose civil servants must only act 'in their official capacity' (even though official comes from Latin), and whose stand-up comics can no longer ad lib. What they'll do instead is anybody's guess, though if they go on ad nauseam no doubt they'll get the hook – the comedians, that is, not the civil servants, who can't be removed from their jobs for anything as simple as malfeasance (which is French for not doing your job). 

    Bournemouth's not one of the old towns of Roman Britain like Londinium (London), Cirencester, or Verulamium (St. Albans). It dates from the later 19th century, but like many of England's newest institutions, the town gave itself a Latin motto, pulchritudo et salubritas, to make it seem much older. Despite the Latin ban, there are no plans afoot to change the Bournemouth motto to 'beauty and health,' words easier for English and non-English alike to understand, even though motto is Latin for 'grunt, mutter,' beauty comes from Latin, via French, and the residents of Bournemouth are not all beautiful or healthy.

    Town Crest of Bournemouth 

    Bournemouth's motto is Pulchritudo et salubritas, Latin for 'beauty and health'

    Seal of Bournemouth University 

    Bournemouth University is even newer than the town, dating from the 1970s; like the town, though, BU is keeping its Latin motto, discere mutari est, 'to learn is to change.' BU doesn't actually teach Latin, but that changes nothing

    While Cambridge classicist Mary Beard calls Bournemouth's Latin ban "the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing," attempts to purify English by ridding it of foreign words, while futile, are nothing new.

    The tradition of "going native" goes back at least to the sixteenth century, when Ralph Lever created a philosophical vocabulary for English out of Anglo-Saxon roots instead of Latin loanwords: terms like witcraft, 'logic,' foreset, 'subject,' and saywhat, 'definition.' Not to be outdone, a century later Nathaniel Fairfax, who insisted that native words were closer to their referents than foreign borrowings, produced a few hundred Saxon alternatives to Latinisms, including unsproutful, 'infertile,' lightsom, 'luminescent,' and middlekin, 'medium.'

    The 19th-century Dorset poet and antiquarian William Barnes lamented that, "as an Englishman, I am sorry that we do not have a language of our own," and went about replacing French and Latin borrowings with archaic Anglo-Saxon or words from the dialect of local shepherds. Those who have lost their reason – in other words, gone nuts – he describes as reasonlorn. In Barnes' Elements of English Grammar (1842) vowels become breath-sounds, and consonants are clippings.

    In another manifesto, Barnes complained that "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 old form, or in the speech of landfolk over all England, or might have been formed from its own roots and stems, as wanting words have been formed in German and other purer tongues."

    True to his word, Barnes wrote a logic (he called it rede-craft) with syllogisms (three-step thought-puttings) like this:

    Every two-horned beast is cud-chewsome.

    Every two-horned beast is grass-eatsome.

    Some grass-eatsome beast is cud-chewsome.

    Native words, yes, but not particularly easy to understand for speakers of English or of other languages.

    And the American Elias Molee, who wanted to create a pan-German language, showed his own reasonlorness by throwing out all borrowed words and crafting a new English vocabulary from pure Anglo-Saxon roots, though when he couldn't find suitable home-grown words, he borrowed terms from German instead. His own monstrosities include earhealer, 'otorhinolaryngologist,' overgo, 'excel,' and fishlore, 'ichthyology.' Molee also proposed replacing Arabic numbers with English letters, but World War I put an end to the demand for German words in America. 

    Finally, despite his French-sounding name, another American, Charles Louis Dessoulavy, found Latin and French to be an encumbrance for English speakers. He wanted to replace agriculture with earth-tilth, arson with fire-raising, and govern with bewield. And a mid-20th-century magazine throw-the-bums-out contest yielded another nonstarter, upgangflow for 'escalator.'

    Efforts to purify English haven't worked very well in the past, though once in  a while a nativist coinage manages to take root: the 19th-century revival handbook is still commonly used instead of the Latinate manual (which also means 'handbook') and the all-but-obsolete Greek enchiridion), and foreword now coexists alongside preface. But that's about it, two native words in the past five centuries. And rooting out phrases like vis-à-vis, which Bournemouth seems to think is Latin (it's actually French) and replacing them with English translations – in this case, face-to-face, or more likely, f2f, just isn't apropos

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