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The Secret Life of Words
How English Became English
By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Copyright © 2008 Henry Hitchings
All rights reserved.
Together, at the same time; the united performance of all voices
From the French, which derives from the late Latin insimul, comprising in, 'in', and simul, 'at the same time'
'All these trifling things ... collectively form that pleasing je ne sais quoi, that ensemble'
– Lord Chesterfield, 1748
On a smoky October morning in 1697, a Puritan magistrate called Samuel Sewall went to visit the Lieutenant Governor at Dorchester, which is now a suburb of Boston on the American east coast. Born in England, in a rural part of Hampshire, Sewall had arrived in America as an adolescent. He had studied at Harvard, had managed the Boston printing press, and in 1692 had been one of the nine judges appointed to hear the Salem witch trials. Not long before his trip to Dorchester he had publicly expressed shame over his role in the last of these, but that October morning this bulky, big-framed figure had more appetizing business on his mind. Dorchester seems to have been a place to go for good things to eat; Sewall had once taken his wife, Hannah, there so they could feast on cherries and raspberries. At the Lieutenant Governor's he met with his friend Samuel Torrey, a man chiefly distinguished for having declined the presidency of Harvard College, and together they breakfasted on 'Venison and Chockalatte', with Sewall amusedly reflecting that 'Massachuset and Mexico met at his Honour's Table.'
Samuel Sewall's breakfast sounds a little quirky, but its two elements are richly symbolic. The venison was indeed good Massachusetts fare, even if the taste for it was one he had acquired not in New England, but in England's New Forest. The word, meanwhile, derived from the Latin venari, 'to hunt', and had entered English through French following the Norman Conquest — one of many culinary markers of the Normans' influence. At first in English it had applied to the flesh not just of deer, but also of hare, rabbit and even boar. By the fifteenth century it seems to have been widely understood as restricted to deer's meat, and this is what Sewall's venison will almost certainly have been, although it is worth noting that John Josselyn writes in New England's Rarities (1672) that 'Bears are very fat in the fall of the leaf, at which time they are excellent venison.' We can be sure, regardless, that the dish Sewall ate tasted wild and gamy. But what of its accompaniment? He and Samuel Torrey consumed something we would not now recognize as chocolate. To English-speakers of the seventeenth century, chocolate usually denoted the drink made from the dark pods of the cacao tree or — Sewall's preferred form — a ball of paste confected out of these. Its name had been learnt from the Spanish, who had heard in Nahuatl, the ethereal language of the Aztecs, the noun xocoatl, meaning 'bitter water'.
That breakfast in Dorchester was a blend, then, of the old and the new, in terms of both gastronomy and vocabulary. Moreover, old and new alike were 'borrowed'. 'We ... have been remarkable borrowers,' the philologist James Harris could opine half a century after Sewall's breakfast. By 'We' he meant speakers of English, and he cited the examples of literary terminology taken from Greek, the language of music from Italian, and terms of cookery from French. 'These many and very different Sources of our Language may be the cause, why it so deficient in Regularity ... Yet we have this advantage to compensate the defect, that what we want in Elegance, we gain in Copiousness.'
These many and different sources are the ingredients of this book. English was imported into Britain, as it later was into North America: the history of this hybrid tongue and above all of its vocabulary, which has proved hospitable to words from more than 350 other languages, is the history of who its speakers really are. So this is the story of the acquisitiveness of English, and of the meetings between what purists may label 'our' language and the external influences that have shaped it. At the same time, it considers the roles of individual people in this history, as agents and as barriers.
We need to communicate — that much is clear. Words bind us together, and can drive us apart. Not all communication is verbal, but language is our most dynamic instrument of communication, and words, imperfect though they often are, prove more lasting than gestures. We tend to accept unquestioningly our ability to express ourselves in language: the sources of our language and its power are rarely of concern to us. From time to time we may pause to wonder what, if anything, a walnut has to do with walls, or why, when it is not a kind of fish, a crayfish is so called. Actually, the word walnut is a modern form of the Old English walhnutu, which literally meant 'foreign nut'. The nut grew mainly in Italy, and when introduced into northern Europe it was labelled 'foreign' in order to distinguish it from the native hazelnut. For its part, crayfish is a corruption of the Old French name for this freshwater crustacean, crevice, which derived from the German crebiz and survives in modern French as écrevisse. Its fish-y quality is the result of a sort of creative mishearing. The important point, though, is that we seldom ask why we speak the language that we do, what we have in common with its other speakers, what its pedigree and career tell us about our ancestors, or what particular ways it has of framing our perceptions of the world. Perhaps we should.
Language is a social energy, and our capacity for articulate speech is the key factor that makes us different from other species. We are not as fast as cheetahs – or even as horses. Nor are we as strong as bulls or as adaptable as bacteria. But our brains are equipped with the facility to produce and process speech, and we are capable of abstract thought. A bee may dance to show other bees the location of a source of food, a green monkey may deliver sophisticated vocal signals, and a sparrow may manage as many as thirteen different types of song, but an animal's system of communication has a limited repertoire: ours, on the other hand, is 'open', and its mechanisms permit a potentially infinite variety of utterances. For at least 80,000 years and perhaps as many as 150,000, language has enabled the sharing of ideas, communication between and within different groups, warfare (and its avoidance), courtship and mating, and the manufacture of what we may broadly label 'tools'.
Every language has a character. Our relationship with our own language can be complacent, but when we speak a foreign tongue we sense more keenly the 'characterfulness' of that language, the peculiar ways it channels history and culture, its special version of the world, its distinctive textures and codes. Different languages seem suited to different areas of experience. Tradition has it that Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, preferred to speak French to diplomats, Italian to ladies, German to stable boys and Spanish to God. English he seems to have used sparingly – to talk to geese. Nicholas Ostler, in his macro-history Empires of the Word, sketches 'some of the distinctive traits of the various traditions: Arabic's austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian's unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit's luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek's self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin's civic sense; Spanish rigidity, cupidity, and fidelity; French admiration for rationality; and English admiration for business acumen'. This type of generalization is attractive, albeit limiting, and hints at a deeper truth: that our languages reveal the nature of our world, and the history of their development is a history of consciousness.
Studying language enables an archaeology of human experience: words contain the fossils of past dreams and traumas. If you are reading this book in its original English, you and I are sharing not only a language, but also an assortment of inherited values and cultural traditions, for our language contains traces of the histories of those who have spoken and written it before us. Even if we are at odds in many of our attitudes, we share certain modes of expression that are unique to this language — sayings, for instance, and clichés, shibboleths and slang. We share a sense of the familiar associations of words. Our language creates communities and solidarities, as well as divisions and disagreements. These are very possibly imaginary or illusory, but potent all the same.
Words are witnesses. To quote George Steiner, 'When using a word we wake into resonance ... its entire previous history.' When new territory is breached, its novelty is reflected in language. I am sure you will have had the experience of looking up a word in a dictionary and finding that it comes from somewhere else. But there are other languages whose speakers will not have shared this. A person who speaks Arabic or, say, Hungarian will be able to trace most of the elements of his or her vocabulary back to that language's now-exhausted ancestors, rather than to other living languages. English is, to an unusual degree, a place of strange meetings.
This has prompted some to label English 'promiscuous', a whore among languages. The image is useful, but it needs tightening a little: it is a mistake to think that English is wonderfully (or shamefully) open to offers. Its adventures have been many and various, but its appetites have been confident, not insecure. In one sense, English has proved to be a whore among languages: in order for it to lay itself open to new intrusions or infusions, there has usually had to be a clear offer of reward. The supposed hospitality of the English language is not exactly benevolent. Sensitivity to the routes by which words have entered our language is important to our understanding of who we are, and this understanding, while often invigorating, can also be unsettling, a reminder of a turbulent, brutal or exploitative past.
Initially English was coerced into absorbing foreign terms, as Latin, Norse and French influences encroached on its territory. Since then, in the course of its travels, English has reversed the process, forcing itself on speakers of many other languages. It has done so not thanks to any special qualities it possesses, but because political events have made it so useful and necessary a language to understand. Its history is a history of encounters – profound, lucrative, violent. Yet to those who know the language intimately it has a strange power of alchemy, the capacity to transform whatever it touches.
A new word is a solution to a problem. It answers a need – intellectual, experiential. Often the need is obvious, but sometimes it is unseen or barely felt, and then it is only in finding something to plug the gap that we actually realize the gap was there in the first place. We all know the experience of coming up against a new word. I could have written 'seeing' or 'hearing', but the preposition against has its place here: when we encounter a word we have not seen before, the experience is a collision. What did you think the first time you chanced upon chutzpah, which is of Yiddish origin, or aficionado, which is from Spanish and originally denoted a devotee of bull-fighting? A likely reaction is bewilderment: what is this word? A second reaction is to ask what its existence tells us. A third is to start using it.
We relish playing with words: making them up, acquiring them, bending them to new purposes. Often this book examines writers who have used language innovatively. Some are chosen because of their enduring influence, others because they are barometers of their age's linguistic atmosphere. Imaginative writing is, to paraphrase George Orwell, a flank attack on positions inaccessible from the front; one of a writer's weapons is novelty, the potency of a new technique or term. We owe pandemonium to Milton's Paradise Lost (where it is 'the high Capital of Satan and his Peers'), diplomacy to Edmund Burke, and pessimism to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Picnic was first used by the Earl of Chesterfield, the modish eighteenth-century politico and arbiter of public taste, whose letters were considered by Dr Johnson to 'teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master'. Sir Thomas Browne, an eccentric doctor and collector who lived during the seventeenth century, seems to have coined amphibious and anomalous. Among more recent innovators was the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov, whose novel Bend Sinister is trophied with delightful oddities like kwazinka ('a slit between the folding parts of a screen') and shchekotiki (which is 'half-tingle, half-tickle').
The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that 'Language is the archives of history': additions to a language may signal a new political movement, a recent discovery, or a sweeping revision of attitudes. Spotting innovations in language affords us an impression of the changing practical, intellectual, social and aesthetic needs of society. Our changing pleasures and priorities, along with our dislikes and anxieties, are reflected in our vocabulary. Words become obsolete as the things they denote disappear or significantly alter; plenty of loans lapse, though some, having done so, are later renewed.
English has existed for only 1,500 years. Its history is usually divided into two periods: in the first, which lasted up until the end of the sixteenth century, the language was being formed; and since then it has been spread – or, in academic parlance, propagated – throughout the world. (This, at least, is the standard view, although a handful of mavericks have put forward a different account – suggesting, among other things, that English was being spoken in Britain before the arrival of the Romans, and that Latin is partly derived from English, rather than the other way round.) Over its lifetime, English has come into contact with a vast range of other languages, at first through contact with invaders and colonists, and then through its speakers' colonial and commercial exploits, which have conveyed the language into almost every corner of the world, forever accumulating new material along the way.
A thousand years ago there were about 50,000 English words: today, according to whose estimate you accept, there are 700,000, 1 million or even double that number.
Very few 'new' words are fresh coinages. Most are borrowings, compounds, fusions of existing terms, or revivals of old ones. Prefixes and suffixes can multiply the terms that branch from a single root. Abbreviations evolve in step with our desire to speed life up. A word which has traditionally been one part of speech can become another: take for example the development of executive, which was an adjective for 150 years before it became also a noun. We are familiar with the way a word can extend its meaning: experience amplifies it, or hammers it down to an airy sort of thinness. Misunderstandings, be they ingenuous or wilful, are another source of new words. So is 'back-formation', in which a word is created by removing a prefix or suffix from a longer word that already exists. Examples are the verbs to sculpt, which first appears long after sculptor and sculpture, and to enthuse, which is antedated by enthusiasm. Genetic was used in its technical sense by Charles Darwin in On The Origin of Species (1859), but Wilhelm Johannsen's coinage gene is not attested till 1911. Of all these types of novelty, borrowings are the most provoking, for they testify to one culture chafing against another.
Our vocabulary is amazingly heterogeneous. Fewer than a quarter of today's English words reflect the language's Germanic origins. Mention of these Germanic origins seems an appropriate moment to speak briefly of English's place among the languages of the world. The West Germanic group to which it belongs includes not just German, but also Dutch, Yiddish and Luxemburgish. Among its North Germanic relatives are Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and – most obscurely – Faroese. These two groups, along with the extinct East Germanic languages (chief among them Gothic), are parts of the much larger Indo-European family of languages. This includes the Italic group, which contains Latin and today consists principally of the Romance languages French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian. The Indo-European family also encompasses Slavic languages such as Russian, Bulgarian, Polish and Czech; Baltic ones (Latvian, Lithuanian); Indo-Iranian ones, among them Persian, Gujarati, Bengali and Kurdish; together with Greek, Albanian, Armenian and the extinct Tocharian languages spoken within the ancient trade network known as the Silk Road. According to one popular hypothesis, the common ancestor of these languages, 'Proto-Indo-European', was spread by the advance of farming about 9,000 years ago. Many of these languages parted company several millennia ago: a phrase in the Indo-European language Latvian, 'Patíkami ar jums iepazíties', meaning 'Pleased to meet you', may look no more familiar to us than the same phrase in (non-Indo-European) Estonian, 'Meeldiv teid kohata'.
A friend of mine, on being presented with the incomplete list above, concluded, 'It might just be quicker to say which languages aren't Indo-European.' It would not be. The languages of China and the indigenous languages of the Americas are other significant groups. The Afro-Asiatic family, which includes Arabic, is but one of several important groupings in Africa, where there are more different languages than on any other continent. Other notable families are the Dravidian, the Austro-Asiatic (such as the Khmer of Cambodia), the Indo-Pacific and Austronesian (Javanese, for instance), and the Altaic, a controversial designation which embraces among others Turkish, Azeri and Uzbek. Within Europe, the most conspicuous examples of languages outside the Indo-European family are Hungarian and Finnish, which are both, like Estonian, members of the Uralic family. Furthermore, there are 'isolates' that bear little resemblance to any other living tongue; the most celebrated example is probably Basque, known to its roughly 600,000 speakers as Euskara.
Excerpted from The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings. Copyright © 2008 Henry Hitchings. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
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