Barnes, William (1801-1886)


What would English sound like if we replaced all foreign words with Anglo-Saxon words?

Barnes, an English writer, poet, Church of England priest, and philologist, had a strong interest in language. He was fluent in Greek, Latin and several modern European languages.

He called for the purification of English by removal of Greek, Latin and foreign influences so that it might be better understood by those without a classical education. For example, the word “photograph” (from Greek light+writing) would become “sun-print” (from Saxon). Other terms include “wortlore” (botany), “welkinfire” (meteor) and “nipperlings” (forceps).

This “Pure English” resembles the “blue-eyed English” later adopted by the composer Percy Grainger, and sometimes the updates of known Old English words given by David Cowley in How We’d Talk if the English had WON in 1066.  Here are some of Cowley’s suggestions:

Among the former some of my favourites include “bonebreach” (bone fracture), “eldfather” (grandfather), “goldhoard” (treasure), “hungerbitten” (famished), “oathbreach” (perjury), and “searim” (shore).  These words have an otherworldly yet familiar feel that takes the reader back immediately to “days gone by” (to borrow another phrases suggested by Cowley).  Amongst the less obvious words, are such treats as “smicker” (which means “elegant” but sounds, to my ear, anything but), “swike” (deceit), “tharfer” (pauper), and “werekin” (the human race… as opposed to, say, werewolves) (

His poetry influenced two major writers, Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Looking for Anglo-Saxon neologisms seems like fertile ground for a poet.  (I don’t know if these poets did that, though.)

His efforts to purify the English language remind me of current French laws to purify the French language from English influences.  According to The Daily Beast, “[t]he French Government also attempted to outlaw ‘le weekend,’ ‘les drinks,’ ‘l’aftershave,’ and ‘le babysitter’ on pain of hefty fines, though this proved unworkable.”

Among Barnes’ other writings is a slim volume on “the Advantages of a More Common Adoption of The Mathematics as a Branch of Education, or Subject of Study,” published in 1834.  This surprised me, as I thought that math has always been an important part of education.  Makes me wonder what advantages he had in mind.


  1. Wikipedia, “Willam Barnes”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s