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This place matters

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fun with Fundamentals - Exemplum Primum

Everybody knows that a huge number of our English words come from Latin, some surprisingly intact, considering how far they have come. What a lot of people don't know, or at least what I didn't know until I took History of the English Language in college, is that almost none of the Latin words that have found their way to us come directly from Latin.
The English language is comprised almost entirely of the languages of people who have conquered the British isles. We don't know much of anything about the folks who lived on the island of Britain before everybody started conquering it, only that it was a loose confederation of primitive folk with primitive vocabulary, who apparently liked very much being invaded.
The Romans started showing up around the late BCs and hung around until the early ADs. The Romans are the ones who name the island "Britain," we don't know what folks called it before the Romans showed up, but I expect that it was something like "Dreary Rainy Rock that Wants Conquering." And really, one must wonder what the Romans were thinking, striking out from the warm sunny Mediterranean with its roads and plumbing and winding up in such a tiny, cold place. Maybe that's why the Romans left after a couple hundred years (I hear it has something to do with the fall of Rome, too). What's a bit surprising is that when they left, they took the Latin language with them. Only a tiny handful of words stuck around. The only one I can think of off the top of my head, aside from Britain, obviously, is castra, the Latin word for "camp," which survives in place names that end in "caster" or "chester," (e.g., Manchester).
Most of the Latin that's part of English now doesn't show up until (say it with me, class) 1066 AD when the Normans decided to eschew croissants for scones and took over. The Normans are far too busy running the country and watching snobby art films to learn a new language, so French becomes the official language of Important People, like royals and priests and stuff, but the peasants still speak Old English (which oddly enough, they didn't call Old English at the time). Over time, the peasants, probably trying to sound hoity toity to impress their friends, start picking up the language of the upper classes.  Now since French is exceptionally close to Latin, the Latin language sneaks in the back door of English over the next several hundred years. And that's how it happened.
The neatest part about all this is how many words came from Latin to French to English totally intact. Back in ancient Rome, just like here, a culinary genius might fill her villa with the intoxicating aroma of citrus and asparagus, and serve it to a senator with a big ego, but great acumen as a legislator. That's kinda awesome.

Also, I got like, straight Ds in Latin class, so take this entry with a grain of salt. I added a bunch of new sources to the bibliography, which is the first post in this blog.

3 comments:

Jack said...

First blog I've ever been to, THANKS!!

disheah said...

I would imagine that there'd be quite a bit of scandavian influence as well, what with the Saxons and Anglos overrunning the place. And I thought the people that inhabitted the land before were bands of Celts that were called the Picts and Britons by the Romans.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Disheah - yep - the Romans named the island Britannia after the Britons, a pejorative name they gave to some of the natives.
I plan on getting into more details about the early influences of the language later on, but you're right about the Scandinavian influence.
During the time before and after the Romans, there are a bunch of tribes (and actually, I should have said we don't know much about their languages, as opposed to them as a whole). The tribes spoke different languages and dialects, mostly Germanic in origin. In the centuries before the Norman invasion, the languages of the various tribes were mashing together to eventually become what we call Old English.

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