How words not only communicate ideas but also carry the past inside them
Although most of us pay little or no attention to the words we use as we engage in the act of communicating with others, every word we employ has a history. Just as archeologists can scrape away layers of accretion to get down to the bedrock, so too with a little effort we can dig down into the origins of individual words. Often these origins are quite surprising.
Before we begin to look at individual words, let’s see where today‘s English language came from. It’s an impressive story.
The English language is the result of a fortuitous hybridization going back more than a thousand years. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe fell back into barbarism in which the tribal model predominated. As is to be expected, not only were there innumerable clashes among major tribes but there was also a lot of mass migration resulting from economic retardation. Gone was the Pax Romana, guaranteed ownership rights, a common currency, and a common set of laws across the Empire. In its place was a dramatically inferior patchwork of local coin, arbitrary rules, lots of predation by the strong on the weak, and no common understanding of how large-scale relationships could adequately be managed.
(And yes, if this sounds like a post-Brexit, post-International world, you can congratulate yourself for being infinitely more perspicacious than far too many British and US voters.)
Anyhow, returning to the topic of language, one consequence of mass migration was that a sizeable Germanic tribe called the Geats speaking one of the early pre-Germanic languages made their way across what is today Belgium and northern France and finally crossed the water to the island of Britain where they gradually displaced (e.g. enslaved, killed, and interbred with) the previous populations. The language they spoke we now refer to as Anglo-Saxon.
Ironically within a few years these newcomers, who had settled down and become farmers, were themselves subject to periodic invasion by Norse warriors who crossed the North Sea in longboats. These were the Vikings and they spoke a very similar language because Old Norse had the same roots as Anglo-Saxon. Much of the vocabulary was common to both languages; only the word-endings were different.
As time passed, some of the invaders decided that it would be a pleasant enough thing to remain in Britain and farm the land rather than crossing back in those muscle-straining longboats to Denmark and Norway. As communication subsequently became more important than battle-axes and swords, both the Anglo-Saxons and the Norsemen found that if they dropped their respective case endings and instead relied on word order to convey who wanted to do what to whom, they could get along just fine.
And so it was that English became the first non-inflected Indo-European language. As English consequently doesn’t have to worry about gender or embedding subject-object relations within word endings, it could more readily absorb all manner of loan words from other languages and it has been promiscuously doing this for over a thousand years.
It’s why we’ve happily absorbed words like booze, from the Dutch meaning “to drink.” It’s why we’ve grabbed hold of compounds such as alert, which derives from the French cry for defending soldiers to man the battlements a l’erte which in turn derives from the Italian alla erta, meaning “to the watchtower!”
It’s why we can have words like television, which is a compound from separate Greek and Latin roots, and why we can use amok without even having to know anything about the grammar of the Malay language.
The fact that English has persisted for over a thousand years, albeit morphing and changing all the time, means that it’s had plenty of opportunity to absorb a lot of influences. The first loan words were naturally from Germanic and Romance languages as these cultures had the most influence. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, Anglo-Saxon was increasingly shaped by Norman French. That’s why we still have the old Anglo-Saxon word swine and also have the word pork for the flesh we consume. It’s why we have Anglo-Saxon cow while we now call the flesh we eat beef. As you can imagine, this arose because the conquered Anglo-Saxons were set to tending the animals while their new overlords got to enjoy the feast. It’s also why we have stool for a rough wooden contraption but chair for the more comfortable option. The former derives from Anglo-Saxon stol while chair derives from the word that today gives us the French chaise.
This means that our archeological dig into the English language is revealing quite a lot about social history. In fact, language can be a great way to illuminate the distant past. The further back we go, the more onomatopoeic language seems to become. The antecedents of our words for cut, knife, chop, axe, and knight all originally sounded the hard k sound, which is the sound of a blade cutting through its target. In most languages the self-reflexive me pulls the lips in toward the speaker while its opposite you pushes the lips out toward the person being addressed. This seems to take us back to the very earliest days of language when sound and meaning were much more tightly coupled. As writing evolved it too began with much closer connection between shape and meaning. That’s why, for example, such words as cam, curve, and cuticle all begin with the curved letter c: the shape encapsulates the idea being conveyed.
Returning to the last millennia, our linguistic archeology tells us a lot about how people thought so many centuries ago. Lord derives from Anglo-Saxon hlafweard which means loaf-keeper or loaf-guardian and lady derives from hleafdige which means loaf-kneader. So the woman baked the bread and the man guarded it with some sort of weapon. Even today, the Japanese kanji symbol for man includes the symbol for sword. For most of recorded history, violence was an ever-present reality and men were called upon to keep their families safe by force of arms. Some of our words thus still reflect this grim reality.
Moving to words with somewhat less traumatic origins, as the Renaissance began to revive knowledge of Latin and Greek, new influences came into English, often with a multiple effect. So it is that the Latin word capitis ended up giving English not only chattel (one’s possessions, which might include land, farm animals, and also one’s slaves and one’s wife) but also cattle and finally capital.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, Britain began to emerge as a powerful nation-state. As an island, this required significant investment in naval capacity which happened to coincide with the discovery of trade routes that ultimately spanned the globe. As the British began not only to trade but also to industrialize, the basis of the modern world’s first global Empire meant that the English language began to be transported to distant lands. Naturally, English speakers began to incorporate native loan-words in order both to communicate with the inhabitants they were interacting with and also to compensate for lack of such words in English.
As we might expect, a great many words originating in the Indian sub-continent made their way into English, giving us for example pajamas, chai, and nabob, the last of which yields the origin of Nob Hill in today’s San Francisco. Many other words such as pukka have fallen out of the language as, post-Empire, they acquired a musty odor too redolent of a time that has passed. For much the same reason a lot of slang from the Great War and World War II has likewise passed out of use, so we no longer hear young men exclaiming wizard prang! and the meaning of over the top has changed from suicide to the much less lethal excessive.
It’s possible to write entire books about the English language, its evolution, its influences, and the history it reveals. I can strongly recommend A.J. Sheard’s masterpiece The Words We Use. Even though it was written nearly a century ago it is eminently accessible, always informative, and a delight to have in one’s library. Also rather good, though less scholarly, is Steven Cerutti’s The Words of the Day.
When we begin to understand more about the words that form themselves in our heads and emerge from our mouths we can become not only better communicators but also we become able to make conscious choices about which exact word to select for a particular purpose. We thus become more eloquent and, perhaps, more careful in our formulations. Most of all, though, the sheer delight of knowing about the language we use can give us the feeling of having something alive on our tongues, like a golden-scaled fish perpetually ready to twitch and leap and astonish us with its vitality.