Tuesday, March 27th, 2018...10:20 pm

Uncleftish Beholding: An Uploosening of English Cleanness

Jump to Comments

Alexei Muzyka

Many English words are directly borrowed from, or take influence from many other languages. Loanwords can fill lexical gaps, increase the ways people can say what they want to, and increase the precision of communication in a language. English has borrowed so many foreign words that it might seem impossible that the complex ideas of today’s world could be communicated without loans. However, doing so can show one where English receives new words from, which languages contribute heavily to certain word categories, and how loans are more helpful than harmful.

The practice of removing loans form English is known as by many names like: Pure Anglo-Saxon, or, informally, Anglish (Hofstadter 218). For consistency I will refer to it as Anglish throughout. This form of English seek to eliminate as many non-English, or non-Germanic words as possible from the lexicon and replace them with English or Germanic equivalents. An example of this is the following text, “Uncleftish Beholding” by Poul Anderson, which aims to explain a complex scientific topic using Anglish (below is the first and last part of the text)(Anderson):

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.


The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.


The firststuffs have their being as motes called *unclefts*. These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called *bulkbits*. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make *bindings*. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and chokestuff…


Today we wield both kind of uncleftish doings in weapons, and kernelish splitting gives us heat and bernstoneness. We hope to do likewise with togethermelting, which would yield an unhemmed wellspring of work for mankindish goodgain.


Soothly we live in mighty years!

Much of this text sounds silly and almost incomprehensible at some points, but upon closer inspection the words that are substituted seem like plausible replacements. Starting with the title “Uncleftish Beholding” is, according to Anderson’s translation, the Anglish equivalent of atomic theory; uncleft meaning unsplittable (atom meaning “indivisible” in Greek) and beholding meaning “to see” (theory meaning “contemplation”, or “spectator” in Greek) (OED s.v atomic, adj, and n. Theory, n). Some more words that are important in the text are: Worldken (meaning “physics”, world “nature” + ken “perception”), firststuff (meaning “element”, first “principle/ fundamental” + stuff “part”), mote (meaning “particle”), kernel (meaning “nucleus”, “nut/ inner part”), and waterstuff (meaning “hydrogen”, water + stuff “born from/ component”) (OED s.v physics, n, sense 1a. Element, n, sense 1c. Nucleus, n, sense 8. Hydrogen, n, sense a). Also, looking at the context of the words later in the text can show their meaning. For example the sentence says that “Water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft,” which reveals that waterstuff is hydrogen and sourstuff is oxygen, since 2 hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom make water.

This text can tell one about what English words might be used if we did not have foreign loans, but more importantly why certain words are used, and how they came into English. Many of the replaced words have roots in Greek and Latin, but do not reach the English lexicon directly from those languages. Instead many technical vocabulary that is originally from those two languages arrives through the French language (Durkin 307). An example is the previously mentioned hydrogen (waterstuff). It comes from the French hydrogène, which itself is made from the Greek ὕδωρ (ýdor “water”), and γενής (genís “born from”) (OED s.v, Hydrogen, n, sense a). This is due to scientists still using Latin and sometimes Greek as languages of science throughout Europe during the time these discoveries were being made (Durkin 341). This is also seen as a spike in the influx of Latin and Greek words, along with technical vocabulary into English around the same time (Durkin 309). Texts like “Uncleftish Beholding” show clearly which languages contribute which kind of words. One would expect French to occupy prestige and fashion words, because of its historic relation to England (Durkin, 307). Looking at this text it is clear that Latin and Greek influence lies in the realm of technical and scientific vocabulary. That is not to say that Latin only contributes technical vocabulary; it contributes other words like family, involve, or produce (Márquez 712). These scientific words, like hydrogen, oxygen, and many others, are very important since they filled lexical gaps that English had.

English is known for its robbery from the lexicons of other languages, but this is not a bad thing. Loanwords improve the precision of speech by providing more options to say one thing by filling lexical gaps. At this stage in the history of English the attempt to remove these words would only do more harm than good. Pieces of literature like “Uncleftish Beholding”, however, provide insight into where loans come from and what we would lose if they were given up. Although it would be possible to throw away all loans the benefits that come with them are too valuable to give up.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Poul (1989). “Uncleftish Beholing.” Warwick, February 12, 2018, https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/complexity/people/students/dtc/students2011/maitland/fun/. Accessed March 22, 2018.

Durkin, Philip. Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2014. Web. DOI: DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199574995.001.0001.

Hofstadler, R. Douglas. “Speechstuff and Thoughtstuff: Musings on the Resonances Created by Words and Phrases via the Subliminal Perception of their Buried Parts.” Of Thoughts and Words: The Relation Between Language and Mind, edited by Sture Allén, Imperial College Press, 1995, pp. 217-266. https://doi.org/10.1142/9781908979681_0023.

Marquez, Miguel Fuster. “Renewal of Core English Vocabulary: A Study Based on the BNC.” English Studies, vol. 88, no. 6, Dec. 2007, pp. 699-723. https://doi.org/10.1080/00138380701706385.

[OED]. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017, www.oed.com.cyber.usask.ca/view/Entry/89974. Accessed 10 March 2018.


Wikipedia. “Linguistic Purism in English.” Wikipedia, 18 February 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_purism_in_English. Accessed March 22, 2018.

Leave a Reply