Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The secret of English

Mixture is a secret of the English island.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits

English has never been a pure language. Few languages are, but because England has had so many invaders over the centuries and because the English have conquered, or at least visited, so many other countries, the language now includes words borrowed from more than 350 other languages.

The three major sources for English words have been Anglo-Saxon (the Angles were a Germanic people from which England got its name), Latin (the Romans controlled England from 43 to 409 A.D.) and French (the Normans conquered England in 1066). A fourth major source of words was Norse because of the Viking invasion of 793. The Vikings left behind the pronouns they and their, as well as such words as window, rake and scare.

Henry Hitchings notes in The Secret Life of Words (2008) that Anglo-Saxon, Latin and French are responsible for many of the rich array of synonyms in the English language. "The Anglo-Saxon word is typically a neutral one; the French word connotes sophistication; and the Latin or Greek word, learnt from a written text rather than from human contact, is comparatively abstract and conveys a more scientific notion," Hitchings writes. He offers as examples the verbs rise, mount and ascend (Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin respectively) and go, depart and exit. Other examples are fire, flame and conflagration and holy, sacred and consecrated.

Various people have, from time to time, attempted to artificially restore purity to our language, such as by emphasizing Anglo-Saxon words over the French versions. "The standard argument," says Hitchings, "has always been that Anglo-Saxon words are pure and French ones artificial, barbarous and infused with the dark scent of depravity."

Many people prefer purebred dogs, yet mutts tend to be healthier and, ideally, combine the strengths of different breeds. Its much the same with languages. Purity is not always a virtue.

No comments:

Post a Comment