Saturday, December 29, 2007

So how did all those words from other languages get into English anyway?

Jealousy and envy - two very mean qualities that percolate through human history also permeate the languages of the world with their lexical droppings. Let's take a look at English as a benefactor of said droppings.

We have to go back to the ancient Greeks to begin our story.

The Greeks were known for their love of abstract thinking, for their mythology, philosophy, mathematics, poetry and drama, as well as for their sculpture and pottery. But sculpture and pottery do not speak or leave linguistic residue; the others do - and they did. The very words "poem," "poet," "drama," "anathema," "problem," "theorem," "theory," "myth," "program," "epigram," "graph," "telegraph," and many, many others all originated within the culture of the Greeks of the Classical period of the 5th century before the Common Era (BCE).

Then along came those nasty, bellicose Romans who swooped down upon the less militarily sophisticated Greeks, conquered them and enslaved them. However, the Romans, though superior in military prowess, envied the Greeks their culture. Into their own language the Romans began to absorb many Greek words reflecting academic and artistic sophistication.

Then along came Caesar who expanded the Roman empire West all the way to Gaul (now called France), and into Iberia, the land that is now called Spain. The Roman legions also reached and conquered England, Germany and even North Africa. And into these countries they brought their Native Latin laced with many, many Greek words that they had "borrowed" from their defeated Greek enemies.

The inhabitants of Spain and France had to try to learn Latin in order to communicate with their new masters. They didn't do too good a job at it.

The inhabitants of Spain originally spoke a language we call Celtiberian. To speak with their new Roman overlords, they had to speak Latin, and they did so very poorly with a heavy accent derived from their own Celtiberian language. This poorly learned Latin is what eventually metamorphosed into modern Castilian Spanish. But Spanish also absorbed those Greek loan words right along with the ordinary Latin ones. So, modern Spanish now has a cornucopia of words that derived from the Greek. Words such as drama, problema, telegrama, poema, mapa, papa (meaning "Pope"), poeta, dentista, oculista, artista and many, many others became standard Spanish.

So what does all this have to do with English? Does it have anything to do with an interaction between the English and the French? Absolutely!

In fact, the very same thing happened in Spain happened in France. Latin vocabulary, which included all those new Greek words, were forced upon the inhabitants of France who also had to speak Latin and spoke with the accent of the Gaulish people who had originally been there prior to the onslaught of the Romans. However, England had its own problems with France. The French, like the Romans, were quite skillful at warfare and in 1066 William the Conqueror, also called the Duke of Normandy, overcame all English resistance and defeated and then inhabited their land. The English, though defeated by the French, nonetheless were jealous, and envied them for their intellectual and cultural achievements and perceived superiority, especially in the areas of philosophy, perfumes and the culinary arts (note: culina is the Latin word for "kitchen.") Are you starting to get the connection?

Just as the Roman aristocracy had borrowed hundreds of words from Greek in order to make their speech sound more sophisticated than that of the "lower classes," the English aristocracy, who by that time were speaking a form of English that we now call "Middle English," began to do the same thing - borrowing hundreds of French words which soon became part of the English language (note: the very word language is a French loan word). That is one of the ways that so many Greek and Latin based words crept into the English language.

I hope that none of you think that English derived directly from Latin. Nothing could be further from the truth. As you may have read in a previous posting, the languages that grew from Latin are called the Romance Languages, and they include Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Rumanian. The languages that sprang from Germanic included Anglo-Saxon, which consisted of various dialects. One of them was spoken in an area of England called Mercia. It is the Mercian dialect of Anglosaxon that developed into Middle English which then developed further into the Modern English you and I speak today. Any Latin or Greek-based words that occur in English came in through borrowings from French, Spanish and, in some cases, Italian.

The previous account is just part of the story of how Latin came to occupy such an important place in the English language. But our story is not quite complete just yet.

Later on in the history of our language, scientists decided to borrow scientific vocabulary straight from Latin in order to name plants, animals, and the full anatomy of the human body.

Why Latin?

Good question!

The Catholic church had been spreading Christianity around the world, and had been doing so in Latin. Here's why: The early Christians had first translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek in order to win the Greeks away from their "pagan" tradition of myth-belief. Then, after the Romans had established their place as the new force to be contended with, the Bible was then retranslated - from the Greek into Latin in order to convert the inhablitants of the Roman empire. Since Roman culture outlasted Greek culture, Latin became the common language of the church. Anyone with education studied languages - especially Latin, and all philosophy and other learnèd subjects were written in it rather than in the author's native language. A French scholar, an English scholar, a Dutch scholar, a Danish or Russian or Swedish or Norwegian scholar would write in Latin. That way, no matter what the native language of the scholar, all scholars the world over would have access to the writer's research and theories.

As medicine developed, the names of all the parts of anatomy were also written in Latin. As the natural sciences developed, all the flora and fauna of the world were also given Latin names. So this, then, was another mechanism by which Latin crept into the English language. You flex your biceps, triceps, pectorals; a person has a coronary attack; you injured your patella. You fractured your tibia and your fibula. You ask a friend to scratch your scapula when it itches you. If you are punched in the solar plexus you find yourself gasping for air.

All in all, mainly because of French, 60% of the 10,000 most frequently used words in the English language are derived ultimately from Latin. The old Anglosaxon words that were there originally have either been relegated to second place, or had their meaning altered in some fashion or were replaced. entirely.

I hope that this posting has clarified one over-arching truism: There are no "pure" languages. Languages constantly absorb lexicon (vocabulary) from neighboring languages, either due to the "vices" of jealousy and envy, or because of admiration of a perceived superior culture or because of warfare.

In another posting at some time in the future, we may look further into the many, many languages that contributed vocabulary to our rich language and the kind of vocabulary items each language contributed.


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