Wednesday 10 May 2017

Anglo-Saxon v Latin: why brands have to choose

The English language is a funny old mix of Anglo-Saxon and Latin vocabulary. But it's serious business when it comes to writing copy. Here's why the difference is vital for brand messaging and tone of voice.

One of the most striking ways you can alter the tone and meaning of what you write is by varying the use of Anglo-Saxon or Latinate vocabulary.

Anglo-Saxon words come from the languages spoken by Germanic settlers arriving in England from the fifth century. Latinate words derive from the British Isles' interactions with the Roman Empire and later medieval France. Today, the English language is a mercurial mix of the two.

It's important for brands to take note of this because a copywriter's choice of words either way can have a big impact, both for messaging (what you say) and tone of voice (how you say it).

Short, simple, brutal
Spot the difference

So what's the difference? In a nutshell, Anglo-Saxon words are short, simple and blunt: 'think', 'pick', 'help', 'eat' and 'drink'. Compare these with their Latinate equivalents: 'imagine', 'select', 'assist', 'consume' and 'imbibe'. Latinates are multisyllabic, cerebral and a bit soft.

Saxon in action

What's that got to do with branding?

Take Gillett's long running tagline, 'The Best a Man Can Get'. It's cast-iron, monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon - short, sharp and straight to the point. It doesn't mess around, but that doesn't mean it's not clever.

Its monosyllables convey directness and honesty even as it makes such a bold claim. 'Best' and 'get' employ plosive initial letters, achieving a rugged, Teutonic physicality. It sounds manly, which is who it's aimed at.

And in Latinate English? 'The most premium a gentleman can obtain' doesn't quite have the same ring of truth.

Posh copy
Dangerously high syllable count

For most copy, simple is often best. But beer brand Stella Artois position themselves as a premium beverage.

So, how can brands use copy to come across posh? Stella Artois's tagline 'Reassuringly Expensive' is unashamedly Latinate. It even uses a 'five-dollar' world to give it an air of sophistication.

It works because it not only literally says that Stella Artois is expensive, but the choice of multisyllabic Latinate copy embodies the idea of 'premium' and sophistication in language.

Clash of civilisations 

These varying connotations can be powerful differentiators. Take Nike's 'Just Do It' (1988) strapline. 'Just' might come from Latin, but 'Do It' is about as Anglo-Saxon as you can get. The line's imperative, 'Do it', has urgency, but the 'Just' takes the edge off it, making it sound more casual and less bossy. There's an Anglo-Saxon directness and physicality that's perfect for a sports brand.

If you're a competitor, how do you go about responding to that?

Adidas learned Latin. 'Impossible is Nothing' (2004) is pure idealism. Take the word 'impossible': as Latin a word as you'll find. It's longer than the whole of Nike's tagline.

It's also a completely abstract concept. 'Just Do It' is rooted in the directness of the body but 'Impossible is Nothing' floats philosophically aloft in the realm of poetry. Adidas meets Nike's call to action with an invitation to dream.

Ironically, of course, straight-talking Nike pinched their name from the classical goddess of victory, whilst highfalutin' 'Adidas' is a very Germanic bashing together of 'Adolf' and 'Dassler'. Oh well.

In any case, when it comes to branding, you need to decide whether you want a dash of Anglo-Saxon bluntness or the more sophisticated abstraction of Latin - or a bit of both.

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