Wednesday, 12 March 2014

I Wandered Lonely As A Clod

Yesterday I had a bit of a rant about people who just don't CARE about language. So long as they can more or less communicate, they don't bother with it.

I can tell you in advance who these people will be. I can predict it.

You see, we are all taught our spoken language at home, and our written language at school, but our attitude towards it is not as arbitrary as you might think.

If a person speaks ONLY English, there is a far higher chance they won't bother much. Those who know at least one other language (doesn't have to be fluent) usually show more interest/take more care in their own language.

Most people on this planet speak more than one language, it's only a minority who only speak one. This comes as shock for those who only speak English and think it's normal. No. There are children in many countries who grow up with 3 or 4 languages, and do so with ease.

Once you look at other languages, you find yourself noticing things about your own. It's inevitable.

I think it was learning other languages in school that turned me onto etymology.

You may or may not know that English didn't always sound the way it does now. You have presumably heard Shakepearean English, but you've heard it read by modern English speakers. It sounded quite different, actually.

So that's Early Modern English (16th century). Let's go back a bit further.

You may have heard of the Canterbury Tales (14th century). Having grown up near Canterbury I had this rammed down my throat in school, and as a result I have no problem with this, but I bet most of you won't even be able to understand a word of it:

And we still haven't reached "Old English". In fact, it's so different, it's another language altogether, and is usually just called Anglo-Saxon. Here's a sample, from the 10th century.

Compare to this, Old Norse:

In the comments at You Tube, an Icelandic speaker has no problem understanding this. And we are told that an Old Norse speaker, and a speaker of any of the Saxon dialects, would have understood one another. Not only does language move geographically, and through time, it develops faster in some places than others.

All of this lets us look at a word we use today, and where it came from. English had a lot of outside influences, especially from Latin and French. If you look at very ordinary everyday words, they tend to be obviously from the Saxon lineage, and the "fancier" words from French and Latin.

Bread, for example is obviously related to the German "Brot", Dutch "Brood", and Danish "Brød", but wine is obviously conected to French "vin", and Latin "vinum".

You may also have noticed that animals and their meat have different names.

Pig is from Anglo-Saxon, Pork is from French
Cow is from Anglo-Saxon, Beef is from French
Sheep is from Anglo-Saxon, Mutton isfrom French
Deer is from Anglo-Saxon, Venison is from French

Even chicken has a French word used to describe it: "Poultry" is from French.

Why? Because the common people, who stuck to the old language, the farmers, they raised the animals.

The posh people, the barons, the rich, with their French background, they ate it.

Quite often two modern words sound similar, but have different meanings. It could be sheer coincidence, but it could be due to a historical connection. For example, did you know that the reason you have a clod of earth, and a cloud in the sky, is that they both come from an older word meaning lump? Makes perfect sense when you think about it. As above, so below, same shape.

Once you start noticing things like that, once you start taking an interest, once language becomes more than just a way to order your drive-through food, you start to see the beauty in it, and you start to care.

Language is what made civilization possible. It lifted us out of the animal kingdom a wee bit, and allowed to us share our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams, our problems. Instead of just doing things, we can discuss things. We can teach one another, and pass things on.

I don't expect everyone to care about language, but rightly or wrongly, when I come across those who don't, I assume there are other things they don't care about too. I find that rather sad.

Nobody knows where the word dog comes from.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. The language of Chaucer is closer to Dutch. I read some once and was taking in the meaning before I realized what I was reading barely qualified as English.