Have you ever read a tech company’s product pitch and wondered what their “solution” was? Have you ever stumbled over vague descriptions of “flexibility” and “features” that “aid” people and encourage a “conversation” on their “device?” 

Let’s face it — a lot of tech sector writing is weak and uninspired. 

It turns out, the sector’s communications challenge began in the Middle Ages. 

(Hang on, folks — this is a bit of a ride). 

The first people to be called ‘English’ were the Anglo-Saxons. They were Germanic tribes who came to southern Great Britain in the 5th century AD. They spoke Anglo-Saxon, and that language became the root of modern English. 

In 1066 the Norman French conquered England. Over time, French words mixed with Anglo Saxon words and were used side-by-side, which is why there are so many synonyms in English — for example “aid” (Norman) and “help” (Anglo Saxon). Broadly speaking, Anglo words are shorter, sharper and are less “flowery” than Norman-derived words. (In fact, “flower” is Norman and “bloom” is Anglo). 

Many of the words that have survived – like “axe,” “hand,” and “path” – are all words for everyday objects and concepts. As a result, some linguists think English-speakers unconsciously see Anglo words as more active, solid and truthful.  

Winston Churchill certainly believed this. He thought that old Anglo words had more bite. In Churchill’s famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” address to parliament, for example, many of the words are of an Anglo origin. That was deliberate. The non-Anglo word “Surrender” is also one of the longest in the speech, comes near the end and reinforces the notion that “surrender” should be an alien concept for Britons. 

I learned all this from my buddy, the crime novelist and criminal lawyer Robert Rotenberg. He talks about this as part of his novel, “Old City Hall.” 

What I realized today—in a thunderclap moment—was that the tech sector almost exclusively chooses Norman words over Anglo words. 

Tech companies “aid” (Norman) rather than “help” (Anglo). They have “features” (Norman) not “marks” or “aspects” (Anglo). They deal in “information” (Norman) not “knowledge” (Anglo). They have “competitors” (Norman) not “rivals” (Anglo). They use “devices” (Norman) not “tools” (Anglo). They’re “flexible” and “specialized” and “add value” or “provide an advantage” (all Norman words).

The weakest words in the tech sector are all Norman derived. So, if we substitute even some of the flowery Norman words with the more workmanlike Anglo words, we get much more active, punchy prose. We get descriptions of tech products and services that more closely and actively describe the technology. We can create descriptions that are unexpected and raw and punch through the clutter of weak language in the sector. 

Now, obviously it’s not possible to eliminate Norman words entirely — and we haven’t even touched on Germanic, Norse and Latinate words. But it’s just possible that the best way forward in tech-sector communications would be to go back. Way, way back. 

Instead of making iterative change (Norman) using bolder, older language, companies could break the game wide open (Anglo).