Tag Archives: English

Save Anglo-Saxon Verbiage!

20 Apr

I was writing the world “albeit” the other day and thinking two things: 1) how much I enjoy these archaic combo words and 2) how quickly these words are disappearing from English. Nonetheless, I should forfend the loss and pledge my troth to the plasticity of English.

To quote a famous radio personality, “English is the bastard of them all.” It’s got Norse, mixed with ancient German, add French softening, and a whole lot of loan words. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when these Old/Middle English words are disappearing… because that’s what language does. It adapts.

Trying to read anything more than a hundred years old is difficult. If you were dropped in the middle of Victorian New York City, you would have real trouble trying to communicate with the locals. You might understand the words, but because you don’t speak in that way, you would have difficulty being understood. The difference between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Ernest Hemingway is night and day. I remember reading Sherlock Holmes as a teenager and loving it, but tried to reading it as an adult, and couldn’t get through a single story!

I love words like “nonetheless.” Sure, I could write “however” instead, but there’s a certain glee I have in using this older term in a sentence. But looking up a list of archaic words, I realize the reason I can keep using “albeit” is because it’s still applicable, where as “tweeny” (a maid who assisted both the cook and the housemaid) doesn’t come up in conversation because so few people have household servants. We use “housekeeper” or “butler” or “janitor” because that’s the only context we have with cleaning staff.

We can also blame the Bible–until the 1900’s, the main English translation of the Bible was the King James Version–and since most English speakers were fluent in Bible reading, a lot of those 17th Century terms and idioms lasted a lot longer than they would have. “Thenceforth, thereunto, and therewith” disappeared from most common vernacular, but everyone knew what they meant, because they read it every Sunday. As there are now less Christians, less church attendance, and a lot more readable translations of the Bible, the KJV and its sway on English disappears.

Horses are not our main form of transportation, so “steed” doesn’t get used. “Weak beer” implies a time where you only had three choices at the bar–weak beer, strong beer, and hard liquor. “Slipshod” can still be used, but away from the original meaning of a broken shoe heel. Many words that originally meant one thing doesn’t mean that anymore. “Quality” meaning good products instead of good people, “portion” meaning a piece of the whole instead of destiny or dowry… and how many parents give a “dowry” for that matter?

On the other hand, we’ve come up with new words because we didn’t have something to defining them. “Doxing” for online shaming of public figures, although that comes from “doxy,” old term for “whore.” “Hacking” as a word changed meanings within computer science. A hack was originally a shortcut that a programmer discovered to make the program run faster, but then it was applied to cutting through other people’s software defenses.

There’s probably better examples out there–do you have any? Let me know in the comments below! Then if you want to expand your word power, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive an education, go ahead and download one of my stories for free!

Not Appearing in this Language

27 Dec

I was watching an Eddie Izzard clip the other night and he revealed a fact that I did not know–English used to have gendered nouns, just like French. But between the Norman invasion and Chaucer, we lost them. Why?

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, take the word le stylo–the pencil–in French. It’s masculine, for reasons that should be obvious, but if you haven’t taken language courses, the concept of arbitrarily deciding what words are masculine, feminine, or neuter is rather odd to English speakers. The le or la both mean “the,” just changed depending on which word you’re talking to. In Hebrew and Thai, at least, the word is often changed depending on who you’re talking about.

I love linguistics, but to be fair, I really just like alphabets. Actual language and grammar don’t interest me as much as the symbols people use to represent them. However, how English evolved is particularly exciting, and it’s something that I liked to teach my kids back when I taught history. Language evolves–and it’s cool to hear how it does. Here’s a clip of how one linguist’s actor son says Shakespeare sounded four hundred years ago.

According to Izzard–and he’s right–the language of government and the ruling class was Norman French, and remained that way for two hundred years. That’s why English heraldry is still referred to with terms in that language: A field ermine, per bend sinister or with three scallops vert. (NOTE: when I read that back in my head, I realized that is the most disgusting coat of arms I could have chosen.) So English evolved on its own, without any interference from the nobles or the king; it mixed with Norse and eventually lost its gendered terms.

I mean, did we really lose anything? It might be nice to say, “No, she’s my wiffreond,” because the term girlfriend gets misused if you’re a guy, because a female friend is technically a girlfriend, but traditionally men don’t use that term for a non-intimate relationship. On the other hand, I don’t have to remember fifteen terms for woman, depending on their status. There’s a big difference between mædencild, mægden, freowif, and forþwif (female child, young girl, free woman, matron). Heck, we’re using letters we don’t even use in English anymore!

What do you think? Did we lose or gain anything by taking out the le and la out of our lives? Let me know in the comments below!

Sownynge in Moral Vertu was his Speche

25 Oct

When I used to teach World History, one of the things I would demonstrate is how much English as a language changed in just 600 years… but I’m realizing that English hasn’t stopped changing, and will continue to do so.

So in my class, I would start with Beowulf, circa 1000 CE, and quote:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Listen! We –of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore,
of those clan-kings– heard of their glory.
how those nobles performed courageous deeds.

It’s unintelligible – it doesn’t even sound like English. You catch maybe two words that you recognize. That’s only a thousand years old.

Then I would go to Chaucer. Since the motto of my alma mater, Illinois State University, had a quote from the Canterbury Tales (circa 1400), I memorized the Clerk’s introduction in the General Prologue:

Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly tech.

Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

This time, it sounded more recognizable, but still foreign. It’s also rather cool and appropriate for a teacher’s college. Side note: right before I graduated, ISU decided that their motto wasn’t gender-inclusive, so they asked their professors to suggest new mottos that didn’t have he or she. Instead of going with any of those, the committee went with “Gladly we learn and teach.” Seriously? (groan) That’s why the unofficial motto of ISU is “I Screwed Up.”

Then I would advance two hundred years and hit them with Shakespeare. However, only recently did I learn about The Great Tonal Shift ™. So even Shakespeare – 400 years ago – didn’t sound like Shakespeare, it sounded closer to Middle English. We softened some vowels around 1800, changed some pronouncations – I can’t help but think that had more to do with London English suddenly getting deluged by all the countryside accents that combined when their owners came in to work in the factories. So what sounded closer to what we think of as Cockney accent – or more likely, West Cornish – was closer to how Shakespeare sounded.

There’s a particular actor named Ben Crystal who works in London whose made performing in OP (Original Pronunciation) his particular niche. It also helps that his dad is a linguist, so he grew up with this, however, it’s amazing to hear him perform:

Of course, it doesn’t stop with Shakespeare. Every year, thousands of high school sophomores are subjected to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which was only written 150 years ago… and it’s very difficult to read. Not unintelligible, but written for people who had a very different expectation from their books… a very different worldview than a modern-day reader. I used to love Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager – only 100 years old – but now I cannot enjoy them at all. It’s difficult to read anything written before Hemingway (70-90 years old).

I find this incredibly fascinating – and should expect to change in the future. Did I miss something? Is there a better example of changed English? Let me know in the comments below!

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