Is there a name for the phenomenon described below, whereby even after centuries of development into erudite thinking, people feel that words that come from formerly more civilized foreigners are more civilized, literate, dignified, or formal than native words? What other instances of it exist than English and Korean?

"Nativity" is a fancy word for "birth", and what makes it "fancy" seems to be that it's derived from Latin. English-speaking people tend to regard words obviously derived from Latin or Greek as more hifalutin than words of Germanic origin. "Substance" is more dignified than "stuff"; "decay" more formal than "rotting"; "predict" more scientific than "foretell". When Arthur C. Clarke wanted to make the names of two characters in a story set in the very distant future seem futuristic, he called them Eriston and Etania, which seem like ancient Greek names (Or do they? I now find something on the web saying "Eriston" is of English origin and means "son of Eric", but I am doubtful).

It seems at least somewhat plausible to explain this by saying that people who spoke Latin and were familiar with books in Greek (maybe especially the New Testament?) brought civilization and literacy to British barbarians.

I have heard that something similar happens in Korea. Korean names of numbers bigger than 1000 are Chinese words.

I know enough about Swahili to know that it's pretty easy to tell which words in that language are derived from Arabic, and among those are all words that would be known only to literate people and unknown only in non-literate communities. The word "kitabu", meaning "book" is obviously of Arabic origin, although its way of being used in Swahili is completely adapted to that Bantu language, as seen in the fact that its plural is "vitabu" (it is one of a class of nouns in Swahili whose singular (in most instances) begins with "ki-" and whose plural begins with "vi-"). I don't know whether Swahili-speaking people feel the same way about Arabic-versus-Bantu as English-speaking people do about Latin/Greek-versus-Germanic-or-otherwise-barbarian.

  • 5
    For about 1700 years in Europe, with rare exceptions, if you wrote anything you wrote it in Latin. Writing simply meant writing in Latin. If you were literate, you were literate in Latin. Latin was the language of laws, of church, of scholarship, of record. Latin was literacy. Naturally, even though this is no longer true for literate Anglophones, the attitudes remain: (1) important language is written language; (2) written words are Latin words; (3) Latin words are important words. For Greek, the same, only fewer words and fewer literates, so they falute even higher.
    – jlawler
    Oct 16, 2013 at 16:42
  • @jlawler: I agree with the tenor of your comment, although you give other languages than Latin a bit less credit than is their due. I also think you mean Western Europe, not all of Europe. In Antiquity, other languages than Latin or Greek were rarely written in Western Europe. In the dark ages, Greek all but disappeared. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular languages were frequently used in writing, although Latin was still far more frequent, especially in official documents.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 17, 2013 at 5:27
  • 1
    ... Between 500 and 1200, little was written in the vernacular languages (although I suspect a language like French was more commonly used than Dutch or English). It all depended on the traditions that prevailed at a certain court or chancellery. @michael This phenomenon is probably pretty universal: words of French or Latin origin are also considered fancier in Dutch than words of Germanic origin. That which was once associated with literacy and civilisation can apparently retain the association for a millennium!
    – Cerberus
    Oct 17, 2013 at 5:31
  • Indeed I did give inadequate credit to other languages; it wasn't the same thing in W. Europe as in E. Asia, where China, and the Chinese language and writing system, filled the role of Rome and Greece, Latin and Greek, for many local cultures; an extreme example is Japanese. But one can only do so much citation and exemplification in 500 characters.
    – jlawler
    Oct 17, 2013 at 15:52
  • 1
    'jo ye kahey ki rekhta kyon kar ho rashk-e-faarsi / Gufta-e-Ghalib ek baar parh kar usey suna, ki yoon' 'He who asks how Rekhta (urdu language) can be the envy of Persian / Read out to him the words of Ghalib and say, “this is how”'. Adressing the common sentiment in Moghul Delhi that Farsi was more err Sophisticated than the native tongue Urdu . The retort is of Mirza Ghalib of course.
    – ARi
    Oct 21, 2013 at 5:21

2 Answers 2


You aren't just looking for the technical term prestige, are you?

  • Not quite. The answer from "hunter" and the comment from "jlawler" are more informative. But your answer still gets an up-vote. Jul 28, 2014 at 17:45

The comments explain specifically why this phenomenon occurs in Western European languages.

One hypothesis for why this might last and why it might be seen in other languages: the "foreign" words never entered the everyday spoken vocabulary of the language, but typically existed in writing and formal speech. In many examples, e.g., "nativity," they still haven't entered the everyday vocabulary.

Thus, the modern-day assignment of prestige is then "the word that I had to go to school to learn is more prestigious than the word that I don't remember learning because everyone says it all the time."

For an example the other way, the Latinate "etc." does not seem more erudite to me than "and so on" or "and so forth," because it is used in everyday English speech. Similarly the French "beef" does not sound more erudite than the English "cow." Of course that is just personal perception.

  • 3
    The plural "beeves", meaning cattle, is something I've encountered only once, and the voicing of the consonant that is voiceless in "beef" parallels "shelf", "knife", "wife", etc. Jul 28, 2014 at 17:44
  • 2
    That words not used every day in speech but sometimes found in writing would suggest a different register makes sense. However: "'Substance' is more dignified than 'stuff'; 'decay' more formal than 'rotting'; 'predict' more scientific than 'foretell'." "Substance", "decay", and "predict" are frequently heard in informal speech. So I think more is going on here than what's been said so far. Jul 29, 2014 at 15:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.