The Glorious Messiness of English
The story of our English language is typically one of massive stealing from other languages. That is why English today has an estimated vocabulary of over one million words, while other major languages have far fewer.
French, for example, has only about 75,000 words, and that includes English expressions like “snack bar” and “hit parade.”The French, however, do not like borrowing foreign words because they think it corrupts their language. The government tries to outlaw words from English and passes decrees saying “jumbo jet” is not desirable; so they invent a word, gros porteur. French kids are supposed to say balladeur instead of “walkman” -- but they don’t.
How did the language of a small island off the coast of Europe become the language of the planet -- more widely spoken and written than any other has ever been? The history of English is embedded in the first words a child learns about identity (I, me, you); possession (mine, yours); the body (eye, nose, mouth); size (tall, short); and necessities (food, water). These words all come from Old English or Anglo-Saxon English, the core of our language. Usually short, crisp and direct, these are words we still use today for the things that really matter to us.
Great speakers often use Old English to arouse our emotions. For example, during World War II, Winston Churchillmade this speech, stirring the courage of his people against Hitler’s armies poised to cross the English Channel: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”
Virtually every one of those words came from Old English, except the last -- surrender, which came from Norman French. Churchill could have said, “We shall never give in,” but it is one of the lovely-- and powerful -- opportunities of English that a writer can mix, for effect, different words from different backgrounds. Yet there is something direct to the heart that speaks to us from the earliest words in our language.
When Julius Caesarinvaded Britain in 55 B.C., English did not exist. The Celtsspoke languages that survive today as Welsh, Gaelicand Breton. Where those languages came from is still a mystery, but there is a theory.
7 Two centuries ago an English judge in India noticed that several words in Sanskritclosely resembled some words in Greek and Latin. For instance, the Sanskrit word for “father”, pitar, was quite like the Latin word pater. A systematic study revealed that many modern languages descended from a common parent language, lost to us because nothing was written down.
Identifying similar words, linguists have come up with what they call an Indo-European parent language, spoken from 3500 B.C. to 2000 B.C. These people had common words for snow, beech, bee and wolf but no word for sea. So some scholars assume they lived somewhere in north-central Europe, where it was cold. Travelling east, some established the languages of India and Pakistan, and others drifted west toward the gentler climates of Europe. Some who made the earliest westward migration became known as the Celts, whom Caesar’s legions found in Britain.
Another infusion of words came when Germanic tribes slipped across the North Sea to settle in Britain. Most scholars agree that the Jutes from Jutland (present-day Denmark) and the Saxons (from what is now Germany) migrated to the south of Britain, and the Angles (also from Germany) settled in the north and east. Together they formed what we call Anglo-Saxon society.
The Anglo-Saxons passed on to us their farming vocabulary, including sheep, shepherd, ox, earth, swine, wood, field and work. They must have also enjoyed themselves because they gave us the words glee, laughter and mirth.
The next big influence on English was Christianity. Wanting to bring the faith to the Angles, Pope Gregory the Great sent monks who built churches and monasteries. This enriched the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary with some 400 to 500 words from Greek and Latin, including angel, disciple, martyr, mass, and relic.
Into this relatively peaceful land came the Vikings17 from Scandinavia, who began raids of plunder and conquest. They also brought to English many words that begin with sk; like sky and skirt. But Old Norse and English both survived, and so you can rear a child (English) or raise a child (Norse). Other such pairs survive: wish and want, craft and skill, hide and skin. Each such addition gave English more subtlety, more variety.
Another flood of new vocabulary occurred in 1066, when the Normans conquered England. Linguistically the country now had three languages: French for the aristocrats, Latin for the churches and English for the common people. In everyday life the Normans ate beef, from the French boeuf,while the English ate ox or cow; the Normans ate venison, the English, deer. But English today has all those words to use.
Religion, law, science and literature were generally conducted in Latin and French. The word jury sprang from the Norman French word juree, “oath.”
With three languages competing, there were sometimes three terms for the same thing. For example, Anglo-Saxons had the word kingly, but after the Normans, three synonyms entered the language: royal, regal and sovereign. The extraordinary thing was that French did not displace English. Over three centuries English gradually swallowed French, and by the end of the 15th century what had developed was a modified, greatly enriched language -- Middle English -- with about 10,000 “borrowed” French words.
Around 1476 William Caxtonset up a printing press in England and started a communications revolution. Printing brought into English the wealth of new thinking that sprang from the European Renaissance. Translations of Greek and Roman classics were poured onto the printed page, and with them thousands of Latin words like agile, capsule and habitual, and Greek words like catastrophe, lexicon and thermometer.
Since the Renaissance spurred a scientific revolution, English had to accommodate it, creating words like atmosphere, pneumonia and skeleton. Galileoand Newtonwere redefining the natural world, which gave rise to words like encyclopedia, explain, gravity, paradox, external and chronology. Today we still borrow from Latin and Greek to name new inventions, like video, television, synthesizer and cyberspace.
All told, some estimate that the Renaissance added another 12,000 words to the English vocabulary. Words came from everywhere.
Indeed, the English language is not the special preserve of grammarians, language police, teachers, writers or the intellectual elite. English is, and always has been, the tongue of the common man. Think of how much powerful idiomatic English has come from poker players, cowboys and jazz musicians. Now it is arising from computer hackers and rap artists. Some words may be thought beautiful and some ugly; some may live and some may die. But it is all English, and it has always belonged to everyone.