Quite a lot, as it turns out. William spoke Norman French and so for 400-500 years after the invasion, the educated classes in England generally spoke French. As a result, today, there are some 5,000 words where we can choose to use either the original Anglo-Saxon word or else the French (Latin derived) word. We can either buy or purchase a car, for example – the meaning is exactly the same.
Bear with me, I am getting to the point…
This issue becomes important in two distinct situations.
Are you trying to convince someone?
The first is when you are in a selling situation e.g. a job interview, a sales pitch, a job-search networking visit. Your buyer will make up their mind about you in less than 10 seconds. And, one of the three areas they judge you on will be the words that you use.
Most communication experts will advise that you choose the Anglo-Saxon word, NOT the Latin-based word. Latin-based words are more formal and tend to put a barrier between you and the listener. In addition, they are more complex and the listener has to concentrate more in order to follow your speech. After a while, the listener often just gives up. And, they can make you seem pompous – not a good idea in a situation when you are trying to sell something.
15 years ago, I used to deliver training sessions called Better Business English. Even back then, it was recommended that people use a warmer, more direct style in written language. How much more important is it that we should do so in our spoken language?
So I talk to people about “coffee shop” talk. (Note: not “pub talk” which often involves rougher language). Sometimes, when I am practising interviews skills with someone, I will stop them and say: “Would you talk to me like that in a coffee shop?” This is my way of letting them know that they have lost me, that I have switched off from their overly-formal language.
Persuading your work colleagues to come on board with your ideas
The second situation when your language is important is the good old every day work situation. If you use what I call Corporate-speak or Organisation-speak, it comes across as fake, contrived and unappealing to most people.
Note, I am not talking here about the normal technical jargon that we all use amongst ourselves. It is quite normal, for example, for a trainer to talk about RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) to someone else whom they know will understand the short hand.
Here’s a few examples:
I had a conversation with the group = I talked to the group
I did a piece about = I wrote about
Our objective is = Our aim is
I appreciate you bringing this matter to my attention = Thanks for telling me about this
Cats sitting on mats?
I am not talking about using impoverished English here. This is not “cat sat on the mat” stuff. English has one of the most extensive vocabularies of any modern language. It allows us to choose a precise word, to convey exactly what we want, in the most nuanced way.
In fact, in my opinion, the wider your vocabulary, the easier it is for you to influence others. What I am talking about is those 5,000-odd words that come from William the Conqueror.
How to Stop
I realised recently, to my horror, that I was overusing the word “like”, as in: “She was, like, so good at that”. So, I have the challenge of minimising this annoying word.
The first step is to find out whether you have this habit. Ask someone you trust to give you accurate feedback. I find it then takes three to six months to change a bad language habit. It takes a while for you to actually hear yourself using the language, then it takes more time to actually eradicate it from your speech.
So wish me luck with my eradication of “like” and here’s to the English language in all its glory.
aBOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Cunningham is Adelaide's leading career expert. She appears regularly in The Weekend Australian Careers section, in The Advertiser's CareerOne, as well as in online publications such as news.com.au, thenewdaily.com.au and womensagenda.com.au