Monday, June 9, 2014

Angle-ish


Tribal people who spoke an early variety of German left northern Europe in search of a better climate and settled on the British Isles. They were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The Jutes faded out or were assimilated, but the Angles and the Saxons dominated the islands for a long time, speaking their guttural Germanic language we call Anglo-Saxon. Then, in 1066, William the Conqueror, a French-speaker from Normandy, invaded, won and proclaimed that important business of the government and court in Angle-land (England) must be carried on in French, but that the Anglo-Saxon peasants (mainly women, since the men had been killed in battle) were not worthy of the lofty language called French.

Professor Elliot Engle of North Carolina State University further simplifies this condensed view of history by saying something like the following. The victorious French soldiers saw that land was cheap in the newly-conquered country so they asked the courts if they might buy some land and live in England. Yes, of course, was the answer. Then, seeing that the Anglo-Saxon widows were very pretty, they asked if they could marry one of the peasant women. Again, the answer from the French authorities was affirmative. Then the question came. Well, if I marry an Anglo-Saxon peasant woman, I will have to teach her French. Would that be permissible? The answer was emphatic: absolutely not. We do not want our wonderful language in the mouths of those women. So, the soldiers asked the next question. Well, then, if I cannot teach her French, I will have to learn that awful Anglo-Saxon language. And the magistrates said, no, we will not have our Frenchmen speaking that guttural garbage. Just marry the woman and soon the most important words in both languages will emerge and you will be able to conduct household business that way.

And, oversimplified as it may be, that is exactly what happened. The English language is not Latin at its base at all. It is Germanic. We get our Latin from the French, which, like Italian, Spanish and Romanian, is a variety of the Latin tongue, because Julius Caesar required most conquered countries to speak his native tongue. England is a glaring exception to that rule. I guess Caesar thought those islands would ever amount to anything.

Anyway, the result of the marriage of French and Anglo-Saxon was that the entire vocabularies of those languages were thrown into a pot and stirred. Because of that, English has more vocabulary than any other language on earth, more than a half-million words. No other language even comes close. That is why we can say things in such a variety of ways. The French look for the perfect words for the thought. English just flops something out there and reiterates it until understanding comes.

Chinese is the most spoken language on earth, but English is still number one because it is the language of business, commerce and travel. I am told that all pilots and ship captains speak English in communicating with each other and with control entities. I have also heard that English teachers are in demand in China.

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