Sunday, January 25, 2004

Words for the Week Special Part II

Europeans traditionally view their American cousins as clumsy, late-blooming members of a society just beginning to play at being cultured: gentle readers will note the general snootiness of the French and English towards "The Yank." After all, they're older, done with colonies and can claim direct ancestry from the Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations. Then there's language too. There's hardly an Englishman who doesn't speak more than a smattering of at least one other European language.

Perhaps it is partly a form of reverse snobbery that Americans are often unwilling (if not unable) to learn another language. Perhaps it's a function of geography as well-- Unless you live on the coast, the nearest states in all the four directions around you are bound to be American. As you're not likely to be interacting with a lost Frenchman anytime soon except to maybe give him the finger (for France's stand on Iraq) there really is no impetus to learn French.

Too bad for us, the world is a rapidly shrinking place. America's importance as democratic experiment, economic/military power and cultural salad bowl isn't about to diminish any time soon. Like it or not-- when we hire ourselves out to the local call centers, write academic papers, read broadsheets with foreign commentary, apply for a job overseas as a nurse, when we attempt to impress a girl from Cebu or Paranaque, or even if we're trying to understand the dialogue in Smallville or The Lord of the Rings --we are, to use the locally flavored speech, "istak wid istadeeying Een-gliss."

The English We Barely Know
What the average practitioner of English in these parts does not know is that English and French are closer than they look or sound. Linguists, cunning or otherwise (sorry, couldn't resist) and philologists lump English and French under "Germanic Languages." The original speakers of proto-English had migrated from the lands that would one day be France and Germany, around AD 400, give or take a few years. (Prior to this, they'd come from Scandinavia) The place they'd migrated into (read: invaded) just happened to include whole chunks of Britain, which the Romans could not afford to defend as the Empire was sinking under the weight of its internal and external problems. These speakers of proto-English were riven along tribal lines--some of them may even be familiar to avid fans of medieval romance movies: the Angles, the Jutes, the Saxons.

Angles... Anglish, Angle-land... English, England

Much of the English language's history is tied to the development of England itself. While it is interesting-- royalty, inbreeding, scheming clergy-- it's simply too bloody long to relate without me suffering from an incredible case carpal tunnel syndrome. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to have to make a lot of deletions and present you with a slapdash summary.

English did not directly descend from Latin or Greek, even if it appropriated words from those languages with a shameless disregard for intellectual property akin to our local Komiks industry. (Indeed one of the strength of English is this shameless borrowing.) Our Jutes and Frisians, Angles and Saxons were almost at constant war with the Celts and with each other. Often, they jockeyed for military and cultural supremacy. These struggles allowed for borrowings from different dialects spoken within our set of warring groups and even from other languages. When the dust settled circa 800 AD, the Anglo-Saxons were dominant and their English was standard.

The Normans (another Germanic bunch) would later invade, bringing with them their own rulers and a new language (Norman-French). By 1300 AD or thereabouts, the upper classes had adopted English again (though not without the inevitable borrowings). By this time, London was the capital, and its form of English was standard. The 1500's (Renaissance) revived an interest in all things Classical, and was consequently a key period, introducing --what else?--more borrowed words from Greek and Latin. Modern English, thanks to the printing press, took root at about this time, with the first English dictionary being published in 1604.

New words were concocted and added to the English lexicon during to the Industrial Revolution: new things were being invented, new ideas were being propagated and somebody had to give them names-- like "protein, nuclear and vaccine" . The British Empire also had a foothold in Africa, India, Asia and the Americas, allowing for the dissemination of English to more people than... than I can count. English as we know it today took shape at about this time.

Next: Grammar
A Sri Lankan grad student at the University of the Philippines at Los Banos once complained that learning English was easy... if the rules didn't change so much over so short a period of time. We'll tackle his complaint with the next installment of this special section.

Some Related Words

language n. a systematic means of communicating by using agreed-upon sounds or symbols

dialect n. the language of a particular district, class, or group of persons. It includes the sounds, spelling, grammar, and diction employed by a specific people as distinguished from other persons either geographically or socially

jargon n. the technical language of an occupation or group

pidgin n. an artificial language used for trade between speakers of different languages

grammar n. the study of language in terms of regular patterns relating to the functions and relationships of words in a sentence, including the level of discourse and the pronunciation and meaning of individual words

syntax n. the way in which linguistic elements (words and phrases) are arranged to form grammatical structure

idiom n. an expression, in the native speaker's language, whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up. Examples follow: "get laid" = "get lucky," which both mean "get to have sex"; or "kick the bucket" = "buy the farm," which both mean "to die."

lexicon n. a language user's working knowledge of words

(to be conculded...)

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