A linguist once said that “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

As we mentioned in a previous blog post — English is made up of a lot of other languages. Norman French accounts for about 35% of all English vocabulary.  About 30% of words come from Germanic languages (which Anglo Saxon/Old English is ultimately derived from) although these words form something like 50% of our everyday speech. The remaining vocabulary partly comes from some smaller languages (Norse, Dutch), but the vast majority of the remaining 35% comes from Latin.

(In fact that number is probably even higher, since a lot of the imported French vocabulary we use is also derived from Latin. But we digress).

Latin in English

It’s not surprising that there’s a lot of Latin in English. After all, Great Britain was a Roman province from AD 43 to AD 410. What is surprising, though, is where we use Latinate words in English.

When the Romans introduced their ideas of governance and science to the wild tribes who lived in Britain, those folks often didn’t even have words for many of the Roman concepts. Which is why, today, we see a lot of Latin words in specialized areas — such as engineering, medicine, and law — which would have been new to Great Britain at the time.

That’s not to say there aren’t ANY Latin words in everyday English. “Freedom” comes from an old English word, for example, while “Liberty” is Latinate. “Answer” is Old English and “Response” is Latinate. There are more: “bug” versus “insect,” and “build” versus “construct” and “wee” versus “diminutive” or “thrill” versus “delight.”

Broadly speaking, though, what these words — as well as Latinate words used in disciplines like medicine and law — have in common is that they are precise* words. When we want to be accurate or correct, we reach for the Latin words in our vocabulary — and that is where the lawyers come in.

Has Legal Reviewed?

For most communications professionals, the three most frightening words in English are “Has Legal Reviewed?” That’s because when plain language documents like news releases or blog posts are sent “down”** to legal, they seem to come back from the stygian depths reading like a grammatical Frankenstein’s monster, reanimated using moldering words like “fiduciary” and “jurisdiction” and with rotting bits of clauses and phrases stuck to them. This — to put it mildly — is frustrating for communications professionals.

In a moment of frustration with the legal review process, a colleague of mine once said: “Lloyd — lawyers may write for a living, but they sure as hell aren’t writers.”

As a younger writer, I might have agreed with that. But I’ve since learned that the reason legal rewrites have all the aesthetic appeal of a Pontiac Aztec is that lawyers write for accuracy. They fear misinterpretation above all — because misinterpretation costs money. And sometimes, jobs, too.

So, while a phrase like LRC’s tagline “words that get people talking” strikes the Latinate legal mind as maddeningly ambiguous — it’s the very same thing that gives a frustrated undergrad-poet-turned-corporate-communications-flak a fleeting moment of joy. And that difference is likely the root of most conflicts between communications and legal teams.

Pax Grammatica

So, what does this mean for organizations and their communicators?

For communicators, it means cut legal some slack. Yes, what they write often sounds like Vogon Love poetry, but without Latinate words there wouldn’t be any law, order or democratic institutions of any kind, really — so give them some respect. And you should never find out the hard way that adding the phrase “as far as I am aware” is sometimes important to do.

For lawyers, it means cutting communications some slack. If the writer says something is so far away “it might as well be on the moon,” it’s not really your job to point out the technical inaccuracy of the statement. Your job is to say if that statement is risky or not. Lawyers need to accept that, sometimes, a little poetry is better communications practice than precision.

The trick — as always — is knowing your audience.

 

* Which, funny enough, is from the Latin praecisus “abrupt, abridged, or cut off.”

** It’s always sent “down” to legal, for some reason. Even when legal is “up.”