And Now For Something Completely Different

Yesterday was the 946th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Walter Russell Mead discusses the effects of the Norman Invasion on the English language:

Modern English speakers can’t make any sense out of the Anglo-Saxon dialects spoken in England before the Conquest. The vocabulary and grammar in many ways are more like modern German than anything we recognize as English. But by the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, something like modern English began to emerge and it had three traits that still mark it today: a stripped down grammar, an unusually rich and subtle vocabulary, and utterly irrational spelling.

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, had a very Germanic grammar. Verb conjugations were complicated, nouns and pronouns had different endings depending on how they were used in a sentence, and adjectives “agreed” with their nouns in number, case and gender. (If we hadn’t cleared all this useless rubbish out of the language we would still be spouting nonsense like this: I sit on thi biggi rocki, I throw thum biggum rockum, tho rocko is bigo. Tha girla, however, is biga and I go with thai biggai girlai to thi picturi showi. And so on.) That all changed after the Conquest, and by the time Chaucer was writing, English was well on the way to becoming the sleek and simple grammatical engine that it is today, freeing up untold billions of braincells for more useful tasks.

This grammatical simplicity is one of the reasons that English has become such a global language. Spelling aside, it is much easier to learn than languages with more complicated grammatical structures. Irregularities and verbal complexities are continually being eroded as the English language continues down the path of grammatical simplification on which William the Conqueror quite unintentionally set it.

At the same time, the presence of two languages side by side not only gave English a bigger stock of words than most languages have, it made English a language of subtle connotations. Animals in the field where the peasants dealt with them were known by their Saxon names: cow, pig, sheep. Killed, dressed and served up at feasts to the nobility, they became beef, pork and mutton — all based on the French words for those animals. English had parallel sets of words for body parts and functions, the “couth” ones usually coming from French, the uncouth ones from plain Saxon. Today’s English still follows this pattern: there are more words in our vocabulary than in most languages, and word choice can mean everything in English prose. In the famous examples from Time magazine, “Truman slunk from the room to huddle with his cronies,” while “Ike strode from the chamber to confer with his advisers.” We have our blunt Anglo-Saxon epithets and our precise Norman-French euphemisms, and the habit of hospitality, the openness to loan words from many languages, continues to enrich English to this day.

Unfortunately, the Conquest struck a mighty blow against sensible spelling in English as well. With Germanic and French sounds mingling in the vocabulary and pronunciation changing from generation to generation as the two language streams reacted on one another, vowels changed their quality and consonants did strange things. The two letter combination “gh” once meant something; now we pronounce it like an “f” (tough), like a regular “g” (ghost) or like nothing at all (Hillsborough). French vowel sounds mutated into English ones, gutteral Germanic sounds got frenchified, consonant clusters rose and fell, accentuation wreaked havoc with vowel quantities and bit by bit we created the insane orthographic mess that we thrash about in today.

I find history fascinating. Unfortunately most people seem to think this is an odd and sometimes annoying aberration. A friend once told me “Riding around with you is like driving with my grandpa. You keep pointing out things that aren’t there anymore.

It is often said that Americans have no sense of history. It occurs to me that that might be a good thing. First of all, most of us are adopted. By that I mean that our ancestors didn’t arrive in the original colonies or fight the Revolutionary War. Most of our ancestors arrived afterwards, and many of them didn’t even speak English when they got here. So when we go to school we don’t study our history, we study U.S. history. And the version we learn has been pretty well sanitized too.

If you go back to the places where our ancestors came from there is a good chance that the people there are very knowledgeable about local history going back hundreds of years. What’s more, they attach great meaning to it. But not in a good way.

Ever been to a Civil War reenactment? Imagine going to one where they used real bullets. This might give you a feel for the way history is treated in Iraq or the former Yugoslavia. There are people around the world carrying grudges and continuing feuds that have been passed down through generations.

For the most part Americans don’t carry grudges. We left that behind with our old history when we adopted the new one. We are very quick to forgive and forget. Think of the wars we fought over the past couple centuries. The three worst enemies we fought (England, Germany and Japan) are now three of our closest allies. We get along pretty well with Mexico, Spain, Italy, China and Vietnam too.

Maybe the whole world could use a little amnesia.

Just a thought.

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19 Responses to And Now For Something Completely Different

  1. Glennmcgahee says:

    You know, living in the bubble of a “gay community” I’ve had to be very careful with my words and definitely with any auto stickers or yard signs supporting Romney but lately I’ve been seeing a few of us come out of the closet once more. This was published recently in my local paper,
    And now I see this from one of Elizabeth Warren’s UAW $50-$150/rally support groups: Disappointing but not surprising.

    • elliesmom says:

      The New Democrats are the party of bullies. My congresswoman was one of the people who participated in the National Coming Out Day video. When she wanted my praise for her participation, I told her she’s a hypocrite.

      • cj says:

        Bullies, hypocrites & idiots who are too stupid to know when they’ve crossed the line:

        “Dems finally go bonkers”

        The Democratic Party has lost its mind and its way. Its political philosophy of inclusion and progress has been consumed by virulent strains of anger, dishonesty and intolerance. Its leaders don’t just want to win an election; they want to silence any American who disagrees with them…

        Consider the latest evidence….

  2. elliesmom says:

    I’m a history buff, too, and I think it all started because my first grade teacher taught us the history of our town. She had us put on our coats and go “touch it”. Years later when I was organizing a reading shelf in my science classroom, I included a book on the history of the town where I taught. A lot of the kids have roots that go back to the early days of the town so a lot of the people in the book have the same last names. Even the kids who were new to the area got a kick out of seeing their friends’ great-great grandparents on the pages. It was one of the most read books on the shelf. Taking a cue from that, when I taught the kids geologic history or how to read topographic maps, I always started with what we could go outside and see. When kids think history is boring, I blame their teachers and the other adults in their lives.

  3. swanspirit says:

    Yesterday was daughters birthday .She makes history in my life 🙂
    I love history and etymology , they are inseparable , so completely intertwined and interwoven , I find it absolutely fascinating to trace the origins of words and even languages , and find their place in history . Great post .

  4. tommy says:

    Fantastic post. Most of the time, we’re worried about the here and now, and how our lives will be affected. Its important to learn and appreciate history to get a truly broad perspective. History is a great teacher.

  5. tommy says:

    A belated Happy Birthday to your daughter, swanspirit. May God bless her with long life, great health, prosperity and happiness.

  6. jjmtacoma says:

    Great post. I love history and English language…

    My family was here for the revolution. We were also here for the civil war – but on the wrong side of history.

    They sometimes call the civil war “The War of Northern Aggression” but you are right, people can work, play, and marry from different sides of the wars we have fought.

  7. 49erDweet says:

    Great post. Respecting history is essential to understanding where we are and what is happening.
    Also love what the Norman invasion did to Brit placenames. Stoke-on-Trent, et al.

  8. DandyTiger says:

    Great post. Love the language angle. Good point about how we take a lot of history issues. Here in VA we get all into history from pre europe, european arrival, revolutionary war, civil war, etc. And it’s all fun. And even when it’s very serious, it’s still a history subject and not an ethnic or regional grudge issue.

  9. Glennmcgahee says:

    I’m one of those people who is afraid to fly so everywhere I go in the states, I’m driving. Its a problem for anybody riding with me or waiting for me since if I see some obscure historic marker I’ve got to go track it down and see whats there You’d be amazed at the things we have all across the country thats been marked and forgotten.

  10. propertius says:

    “Crony” isn’t Anglo-Saxon 😉

  11. Roberta says:

    If you love the history of the English language as much as I do, you cannot do much better than Robert Claiborne’s “Our Marvelous Native Tongue.” [Times Books, 1983 ISBN 0-8129-1038-9] It is a fantastic romp through all of the stages of the flowering of the English language.

    Unfortunately, it is out of print now, but can sometimes be found on an in-depth search on the internet.

    It is well worth the time searching for it. It is glorious to savor the reading of it, (and the re-reading it) as the author is great at using the English language himself.

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