Monday, September 29, 2008

Our Brilliant Language

I was reading The Writer's Almanac today and found something that I thought interesting enough to share.

"It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, and on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abby.

"One of the most important consequences of the Norman conquest of England was its effect on the English language. At the time, the British were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans spoke French. Over time, the languages blended, and the result was that English became a language incredibly rich in synonyms. Because the French speakers were aristocrats, the French words often became the fancy words for things. The Normans gave us "mansion"; the Saxons gave us "house." The Normans gave us "beef"; the Saxons gave us, "cow." The Normans gave us "excrement"; the Saxons gave us lots of four letter words.

"The English language has gone on accepting additions to its vocabulary ever since the Norman invasion, and it now contains more than a million words, making it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. Writers have been arguing for hundreds of years about whether this is a good thing. Walt Whitman said, "The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all." On the other hand, the critic Cyril Connelly wrote, "The English language is like a broad river … being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." And the poet Derek Walcott, who grew up in a British colony in the West Indies, said, "The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself."

I like the part about the Saxons giving us lots of four letter words. The farmers, lumberjacks, plumbers, ranchers, gangsters and rappers of America are forever grateful. I wonder if 1000 years from now the Mormons of Utah will be given credit for "fetch"?

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Thanks for posting that, it was very interesting. I would agree more with Walt Whitman, although I don't really like his writing much :) English may be really hard to learn but it gives words like surreptitiously and penultimate. It's great!