'The Story of English' -- The Mother Tongue

'The Story of English' -- The Mother Tongue
Source: reusableart.com

"From the beginning, English was a crafty hybrid, made in war and peace," write Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil in Chapter Two of "The Story of English," called "The Mother Tongue."

Invasions and cultural revolutions fed the development of English long before 1776 and American independence.

In the eighteenth century, "a gifted amateur linguist," Sir William Jones, a British judge stationed in India, began to examine the roots of English in a paper presented to the Asiatick (sic) Society of Calcutta. Jones had set out to learn about India's law codes, according to the authors, but he discovered that Sanskrit used for them bore a strong resemblance to two other ancient languages he knew -- Latin and Greek.

"The Sanskrit word for father, transliterated from its exotic alphabet, emerged as pitar, astonishingly similar, he observed, to the Greek and Latin pater. The Sanskrit for mother was matar; in the Latin of his school days it was mater. Investigating further, he discovered dozens of similar coincidences. Though he was not the first to notice these similarities, no one before Sir William Jones had studied them systematically," note the authors.

"The Sanskrit language, he announced to the Asiatick Society on that evening of 2 February 1786, shared with Greek and Latin 'a stronger affinity... than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists."

That was the beginning of considering English as part of what's known as the Indo-European family of languages. But "The Mother Tongue" has other ancestors in this chapter of our language's story.

The Celts, the original inhabitants of the British Isles long before the English, spoke Gaelic, which survives in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Brittany region of France. "The people of Wales prefer to call themselves cymry, or 'fellow countrymen,'" notes "The Story of English, "a reminder that they -- together with the Irish, Scots and Cornish -- are the true Britons."

The Welsh language, Cymraeg, is part of the Celtic family of languages which can be found from the Hebrides islands in Scotland to parts of Brittany.

The Roman Empire reached England, but not the Celtic parts of Britain. Hadrian's Wall, the ancient border between Scotland and England, was a Roman method of keeping the Scots out. (Walls, Hmm.)

The Anglii, or tribe of the Angles -- the English -- shared roots with German and Dutch. In the Netherlands region of Frisia today, notes "The Story of English," the term for a cup of coffee is in kopke kofje.

Latin vocabulary arrived along with the Roman Catholic Church, which "brought its huge vocabulary to England in the year AD 597," according to the authors. The establishment of churches in England was also an establishment of their vocabulary and of education. The authors note that "God, heaven and hell are all Old English words," and modern Christians who struggle with the difference between the terms "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit" can blame the ancient language differences. Spritus sanctus, in Latin, was translated into Old English as Halig Gast, or Holy Ghost.

Even if we want to argue about how long these discussions can last -- to Judgement Day or Doomsday -- it's the same thing: the Latin Judgement Day became Doomsday in Old English.

So development of English from other languages started early, and it doesn't look as if it'll stop anytime soon.

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook. 

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  • Excellent post! This is fascinating stuff, and I love how you presented it. Thank you!

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you very much for the kind words. As for how I present it, this is as much editing as writing -- picking out the right quotes from chapters I enjoy. I am glad you enjoy it, too!

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