Word Choice in English-Language Haiku:
The Uses of Roots
finding just the word
I was looking for ~ Carolyn Hall
Word choice stands at the center of the practice of writing. This is particularly true for poetry, and even more so for haiku. Simply put, the choice of a word can make or break a poem. Choosing the right word entails a myriad of considerations. Etymology can be a useful part of this process: Words originating in different periods have different properties and reflect unique states.
For English-language haiku poets, a useful starting point is distinguishing Anglo-Saxon (Old English) words from those descended from Latin (Middle English). It’s estimated that half of the commonly used words today have Old English roots. These words are older and often shorter, and contain few syllables. Typically they include the first words that native speakers learn as children: good, bad, hot, cold, eat, sleep, and so forth. As such, they possess a strong visceral resonance. When you compare these words with their Latin-derived synonyms, the differences are readily apparent:
The Old English-descended words are simpler and more di- rect, imagistic, and colloquial.
the echo in the caw
of the crow
Mark Hollingsworth’s poem (which won Frogpond’s best of the Fall 2009 issue) contains the Old English–derived words “first,” “frost,” and “crow.” These words produce an austere and spare feeling that underscores the scene.
the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek,
increases the cold
In this classic by Nick Virgilio, the Old English words— “sack,” “sink,” “creek,” and “cold”—paint a sharp picture that is multi-sensory. The reader can feel the cold and the wet, and imagine the muffled cries of the kittens.
As is apparent in these two examples, Anglo-Saxon words offer several benefits. Because they are more visual, they can better evoke a scene. Because they are shorter, not only can they be accommodated in haiku, they can actually contribute to the compression of the poem. Additionally, Anglo-Saxon lends itself to alliteration; in fact, alliteration was a notable attribute of Old English literature.
In contrast, Latin-derived vocabulary from Middle English tends to be used in formal communication. It predominates in scientific and medical terminology, as well as in the legal and academic fields. Some writers and teachers recommend avoiding Latinate terms altogether because the vocabulary has been used to remove “subjectivity” from prose.
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