Partial tree of Indo-European languages. Branc...

Aren’t we a good-looking bunch?

Two semesters ago I took a class on Old English. It was a great class! I learned many things that helped to change the way I think about my native tongue, and in some ways, the way I use it.

For example, it is interesting to note that Modern English, today probably the most powerful language on the planet in terms of political or social prevalence, began on a tiny murky island somewhere in the foggy north of Europe, an unlikely love child of the Germanic and Romance lines of the Indo-European clan.

This kind of thing boggles my mind.

What we call Old English, spoken first in the Middle Ages, is not intelligible to English speakers today. (Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare did not write in ‘Ye Olde Englishee’, but in what is considered to be Modern English.) The roots of English are deeper than many people recognize.

But for the French invasion of 1066, and the following birth of Middle English, my native language would sound more like Danish today. Since the French became the more dominant power in England of that time, and the English aristocracy continued to speak French for generations, most of the words we associate with power or elegance are the Romance (Latin) ones: excellence, royal, special, beauty, to name a very few. In contrast, most of the words we associate with daily life or ‘peasantry’ are still Germanic in origin: cow, farm, house, child. Try it yourself: have a conversation, trying only to use words with a Germanic origin. It’ll be impossible, but you’ll probably be speaking largely in monosyllables. Then, try to say something using only words with Latin origins. Again, it’ll be impossible, but you’ll sound pretty highfaluting for a while. (The reason it is so hard to do this is because English is such an intertwined mash of the two linguistic traditions. There was once a movement in India to purge Hindi, a Sanskritic language, of all Persian/Arabic influences. This was ultimately impossible for the same reason.)

French (itself a language influenced by the Franks, a Germanic tribe) has a very large number of cognates with English. But since only the lexicon (vocabulary) of French was transferred, English still retains its Germanic syntax (~ grammar) structure, and thus we still do very uniquely Germanic things like putting the subject always before the verb.

Studying the English family tree is like studying that of a hobbit, so complex and riddled with cross-lines and loops it is. Keep in mind that both the Germanic and Romance lines come from the greater Indo-European family, which also produced the Sanskritic tradition in India, the Celtic languages of Europe, Hellenic (Greek) languages, and Indo-Iranian (Persian) languages, among others. When I say that the roots of the most powerful language in the world today go deeper than most people realize, it is partly because Modern English is so very new, in the grand scheme of things, and the mysterious language whence it sprung is also the matriarch of literally hundreds of languages spoken across the globe. This is one of the reasons I feel confused when people advocate for a universal language. Many of our languages are related anyway! If that thought doesn’t connect people, I don’t know what will.

Also keep in mind that we who write and read English are using a writing system developed by the ancient Romans, borrowed through the Etruscans from the Greeks, who stole it from the Phoenecians, who were Semitic peoples including what became Arabs and some Africans.

But that’s a story for another day. 🙂

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