Thursday, February 21, 2013

Good Old English

I hear a lot of people complaining about the horrible climate in England. I’ve never been there, but if it is anything like Germany, where I lived for a few years, they have a right to complain: cold winters, foggy springs, cloudy summers and miserable autumns. Apparently Julius Caesar didn’t like England very much either. I imagine he considered those islands to the north insignificant, never to play a role on the world stage because of weather and location.

He was wrong about that, of course. If Caesar had liked the British Isles, though, you and I would be speaking Latin today, just like the other countries he conquered. Italian is a variety of Latin, as you know. When Caesar conquered Spain and Portugal, he required them to speak Latin, which they did with their own quirks. The same is true for France and Romania. These countries speak a language that is completely Latin at its root. If you took Spanish or French in school, you were really studying a variety of Latin. That’s why Spanish speakers on this side of the Atlantic are called Latinos.

Why didn’t Julius Caesar force the Angles and Saxons, those guttural-talking, smelly inhabitants of what is now England to speak his lofty tongue? Historians surmise that he thought these people were undeserving of Latin. So these inhabitants kept on speaking Anglo-Saxon until 1066 when William, a French-Latin speaker, took over the land. But, like Caesar, he didn’t share his language with the Anglo-Saxons either. What he did was to dump the entire French-Latin vocabulary on the Anglo-Saxon tongue. What I’m telling you is that English is not Latin at its root at all. It is Germanic. We got all our Latin-based words from the Norman Invasion, led by William the French-Latin speaker.

Consequently, we have more words in English than in any other language on earth. French and Russian, for example, have fewer than 200,000 words each. Mandarin Chinese, the world’s most spoken language, has just a few words over 200,000. Professor Eliot Engel of North Carolina State tells us that as of this year, English has well over 600,000 words. The simple ones like “me, he, go” are all Anglo-Saxon German. The complex ones like “interrogate” are French-Latin. That word in Anglo-Saxon is “ask.” If we want to be polite or sophisticated, we tend to use French-Latin. We perspire (French-Latin) but don’t sweat (Anglo-Saxon-German). We get mad (Anglo-Saxon). Some people get discombobulated (French-Latin). RSVP is sophisticated; BYOB is not. You get the point.

In English we can say the same thing in a variety of ways thanks to the richness of our vocabulary. “I am leaving for school” could be “I now depart for the halls of learning.” “I’m eating lunch” could be “I’m having my mid-day repast.” “I love your outfit” could be “I dig your threads.” “That’s a beautiful car” could be “cool ride, man.” So, in a way, English is a poetic language, in that we can bring to bear the ancient poetic technique of parallelism upon everyday speech. The earth is the Lord’s and all that dwell therein, the world and the inhabitants thereof.

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