Friday, 31 October 2014

The English Language

This review was written on August 31st 2012

The English Language. 

I bought this book from Kindle in August 2012.  I was, as always, interested in the origins of the English language.  This book is authored by a very learned scholar of language, and much of his long dissertation contains unusual but not inappropriate words in the text, such as orthography, philologist, palaeontologist, consontental, triphthong, phonetics, the copula, praeterite, etymology, prosody, euphony etc. which must be a little beyond the ordinary reader

Robert Gordon Latham C. 1860
The text was probably published in the early 20th century and the author, Robert Gordon Latham, was Professor of English Education in London University.  It is long, perhaps about 700 pages. Its contents must be hugely important to any real scholar of the English language, containing as it does so much detail about every aspect of the language’s evolution from the earliest Etruscan roots to the constructions of the present day language.  Much of its details were lost on me but nevertheless I learned enough to follow the general evolution of the English language and its relationship historically and in other respects with many other ancient and modern tongues.

Archaic Etruscan Alphabet 7th - 5th Centuries BC
Apparently the first alphabet known to us was Etruscan and the earlier pre-Roman and pre-Greek languages are described as Gothic, Celtic or Germanic.  There is much information about the so called Germanic languages which include those of the Nordic countries, Iceland and the North Atlantic islands. The name England and Anglo-Saxon were derived from the immigrant Angles and Saxons.

The initial chapters deal largely with the origin of the English language during the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. with the various invasions of the Saxons, the Angles and the Jurists from Germany and surrounding cultures.  These sects invaded different parts of south-eastern England and they have left the remains of their languages in some of the place names in these areas.  The book provides many examples of modern names and place names in the east and south of England which can be traced back to these earlier Germanic tongues. These Germanic languages were preceded by the Roman invasion of England at the time of Caesar but the Romans left little trace of Latin after their departure, whatever about their archaeology remains.

Viking Runic inscription
The Vikings during their long stay at the end of the first and early in the second millennia left their mark too in their language and were more influential north  of the country’s south-east.

Later chapters deal with the evolution of English at the time of Edward the Confessor in the 13th Century.  It was then that the educated speaking Latin and French were first to start corresponding in old English and it was Edward the First who was the first to communicate with his subjects in this way. 

There is much of interest in the origin of language in Scotland where the low level Scots spoke English while the Western areas spoke Gaelic and were heavily influenced in the North of Scotland and in the contiguous northern islands by Scandinavian roots with Gaelic dominant in the Highlands and the Hebrides. 

I have to confess that many chapters were fast read by me where the author deals with such aspects as terminology, pronunciation, declensions and grammar; I was primarily concerned with the origin of the language.  I was of course interested to enquire into the origin of Irish in Ireland and the Celtic languages still existing along the Atlantic seaboard. It was extraordinary that the Celtic tongues continued to exist for so long on this narrow strip of coastland stretching from the North of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the northwest of Spain.  There is a section suggesting that the Irish in Ireland was particularly related to the ancient Punic languages, presumably from North Africa, but the evidence of this is hardly convincing or perhaps not fully understood by myself. In one chapter, it was stated that Irish was of Carthaginian origin but it is apparent that Celtic preceded Greek and Latin as one of the earlier languages in Europe and the Eastern world.

There is much reference in the text to the influence of the Scandinavian or Norse languages. The Viking invasion of England (and Ireland), an occupation which continued for five centuries or more, left place names as well as other language  traces. Examples in Ireland are the terminal place name word such as ford, which is derived from the Norse word Fiord and why did the family names including the initial Fitz remain common in Ireland and not in England? 

The reference to Edward the Confessor underlines the importance of the Norman invasion in 1166 when French and Latin became the spoken and written words of the better educated and which had a huge influence on English terminology, particularly in the areas of science, law, the professions and the gradual expansion of education.

Reading this long and specialist book reminds me of certain limitations in the use of Kindle.  These may be partly an expression of my own ignorance of the usage of this medium of reading. The Kindle is unsatisfactory in dealing with maps, photos and designs.  Maps apparently cannot be changed to do different fonts, so that they cannot be enlarged or studied in detail.  There is also the problem of making quick and easy reference to other aspects of a long book, particularly where there are many characters and many chapters. 

This book is, for example, divided into four parts, one at least of which has more than thirty chapters, and each of which is on a different aspect of the English language.  Of course the book itself may be heavy for the older person and its font may not suit the elderly. These are problems for me with my visual impairment and the cramps induced by the weight of the book on my hands.

At the year 1,000 A.D it was believed that the language at the time owed 75% of its origin to Anglo-Saxon, 12% to Anglo-Norman, 2% to Celtic, 4% to early Latin, 3% to Scandinavian and the rest miscellaneous. Clearly by the 21st century much has changed through the later Norman influence based as it was on the earlier Latin and the preceding Greek, and of the influence of the extensive regions which were dominated by and greatly influenced by the British Empire during the last three centuries. Among the educated at least, and particularly those of the medical profession, the many prefixes (pre, Latin) and suffixes (Greek ism, Latin ble) derived from these two classical languages is a prominent part of our daily speech.

Reading this book at my advanced age confirms my regrets that I had not read it and similar works about the origin of the English language and its progressive change over the last two millennia. It reminds me how poor was the standard of education, primary and secondary, during my earlier years. It also should remind us that Latin and Greek are still important for the medical profession if we doctors are to maintain a proper insight into the culture and into the history of our profession.

No comments:

Post a Comment