Friday, 11 April 2014

The secret life of words

The Secret Life of Words – How English became English, Henry Hitchings. John Murray, London, 2008. pp 440.

This review was written on February 3rd 2009

I have been interested for some years in the origin of English words and in particular in the origin of medical terms which are largely derived from Greek and Latin. The prefixes of such words are often derived from Latin while the suffixes are commonly of Greek origin, but this is not by any means a strict rule. Diarmuid O’Muirithe, who writes the short articles in The Irish Times, Words we Use, was my first reminder of Hitchings’ book on the origins of the English language.

This is an account of the progression of the English language from pre-Christian times to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the Jutes and the Frisians from northern Europe in the early post-Christian period and then to further invasions over the centuries.  The progression of the English language is traced by the country’s history, by the many invasions over the centuries, the political and commercial contacts with other countries in Europe and further afield, and the later spread of England’s hegemony over the world from the later 18th to the 20th century. The English abroad, whether as travellers, traders or for waging war, such as the crusades, were also to add new words to their language.

The most palpable effect on English was the arrival of the Saxons and the Angles from Northern Europe in the middle of the 5th century. The Saxons invaded the South of England while the Angles occupied its east coast. Contemporary place names leave a mark of these invasions to this very day.

Hitchings describes some of the many thousands of words which were borrowed over the centuries. (There is a list of more than 3,000 of such words in the appendix.) Most borrowed words remain in the language but some were later discarded. Indeed, most of our words to-day are borrowed words which were acquired aver the two millennia. After the 5th century the greatest borrowings were from the Normans who appeared in the early second millennium, with their rich scattering of French words, an accretion which was to continue for a few centuries. . But the early northern European invasion by the Anglo-Saxons and others provided the first clear basis for our language and the later Vikings towards the end of the first, millennium provided a further large shaft of words, particularly to the coastal areas of the island.

Ireland and the Celts provided few words to the English tongue, perhaps because we were isolated from the larger island in terms of language and custom, and because the Normans and English did all to discourage the use of Irish. It was never used by the English administration here. One might well ask why the Norman prefix Fitz has survived extensively in Ireland while it is clearly less common in England. Indeed, in another aside, one wonders how the Celtic languages on the Atlantic coast strip of Europe and the British Isles survived with little influence on neighbouring languages and with no great effect on its own tongue. It seems bizarre that a language so different from English and French  has survived although the Celtic languages may now be suffering from the more widespread adoption of English as the greatest means of international communication.

All greek to you?
The Normans were the first to bring surnames into use and many of these were based on occupation. The influence of French was to have a particular dominance on the professions such as law, medicine, government and the more elitist occupations and institutions

It is a generalisation that words of Northern European and Germanic origin tend to be short with one or two syllables while Norman/French words tend to be longer. There are many reminders about English words derived from French, such as the diminutive et at the end of words such as booklet and hamlet. Unlike some modern countries, England never discouraged the acquisition of new words, even some of the bizarre words of Asia and Africa.

Language is never just language
The author refers to the early writers of English before the introduction of the printing press.  Chaucer, who wrote a great deal more than The Canterbury Tales, was one of the first to write in the vernacular about ordinary things for ordinary people. He set a trend which at first did not receive the approval of the elite who preferred French and the church which preferred Latin. It was apparently the influence of King John and Henry 1V that eventually induced the elite and parliament to adopt the vernacular.

The huge amalgam of words which is now modern English is a source of knowledge, inspiration and vitality. The language must animate thought, inventiveness and originality which may well account for the dominance over the centuries of the English speaking world in science, commerce and the professions. Such a richly endowed language must be empowering.

The Elizabethan period in England was in many ways the equivalent of the earlier Renaissance in Europe.  It provided a virtual cornucopia of activity in terms of writing, poetry, drama, social change, intellectual activity and the acquisition of new words (not to mention tobacco and the potato). It was at this time that many new French words, themselves often derived from Latin or Greek or both, were acquired. Shakespeare has added 1,700 new words to the literature in his writings and plays, although some of these words may have been in oral use beforehand.  However, there is substantial evidence that many of the writers before and during Elizabeth’s reign were prone to invent words, often derived from the classical languages.

Later chapters of the book deal with the influence of Latin, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, American and other ethnic groups on the English language, and we are provided with an absorbing background account of the international relationships established by the English over the centuries with these many countries. Hitchins book is essential reading for students of English. It is our most comprehensive and encyclopaedic language and it is not unlikely that it will prove to be the universal language of a globalised world. With its huge lexicon gathered over two millennia and British early leadership in science, politics and social organisation, the natural place of Henry Hitching’s work is in the library beside the dictionary, Fowler’s, books of synonyms and  antonyms, and all the many  books of reference in English available in our libraries.

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