Gegaderung > Anglo-Saxon Discussion

How do we spread knowledge that A-S is a large part of Modern English?

(1/13) > >>

I'm getting tired of being told that A-S, Old English, is only a small part of our modern language!   

Some time ago, on BBC TV, there was a programme about the treasures of A-S England by Professor Janina Ramirez which ended with her saying, roughly, that there were 'even a small number of A-S words in modern English'.

I was talking recently to an apparently educated man who said that there was only 5% A-S in modern English and when I argued, he asked if the experts were wrong, then?   To which I replied 'Yes!'

A woman I would have thought was educated even asked why I thought A-S had anything to do with English which was based on Latin and through that on French.

Can anyone suggest ways in which Old English can be publicised more  --  is anyone out there willing/able to give lessons on it to the general public, perhaps nightclasses.   

Or something.   


Well said Jayson.

You put your finger on a point I find deeply peculiar when it isn’t infuriating.  There’s a kind of circular reasoning and contrafactual sense of entitlement that seems to besot many educated people if ever they get started about Old English: language, culture, “mud huts”, you name it.

A few years ago I proofread a textbook for students taking the English Literature baccalaureate.  This was, on the whole, every bit as well informed and interesting as you’d expect.  I learnt a thing or two about certain early twentieth-century novelists who’d never interested me.  After all it was written by a professor of English Literature and all.  Yet the minute he got onto Old English and what he thought he knew about the Anglo-Saxons, he seemed to see nothing air-headed or irresponsible about letting his gut do the taking.  I had to put him straight about two examples of modern English words “from Anglo-Saxon” that actually entered our language from Medieval French, ultimately from Latin ( a third example was actually from Old Norse, but that I call an understandable mistake).  These words he characterised as strong and forceful.  Which of course real throwbacks to Old English can be but, by this time, I could not help but raise the question of why other such throwbacks as ‘care’ ( caru), ‘heart’ ( heorte) and ‘bosom’ ( bōsm), to say nothing of The Dream of the Rood didn’t suggest that the Old English had a softer, sensitive and more spiritual side. 

Then he repeated the myth that there was a big inrush of French words into English in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  The which he took for granted as a Good Thing because these French words are wonderfully expressive and flexible, and that they made up the majority of Chaucer’s vocabulary! 

Since I had to put him straight about Old Norse, still, accounting for the majority of borrowings into Early English ( the Norman-Angevin Period) and that it wasn’t until the end of the Hundred Years War ( when England’s aristocracy at last made its once-and-for-all plump for speaking English as their normative Mother Tongue) that French words came in en masse, I dropped a few other hints whilst I was about it.  Like the way the Ancrene Riwle is still closer to Old English than Chaucer, and does anyone think Germanic languages that retained normative Germanic vocabularies are somehow tongue-tied or straitjacketed because they haven’t borrowed enough French vocabulary, and was this a criticism anyone ever made of Goethe’s Faust?  Then I used forty-two of the sixty words in the same line note I wrote as examples of the half of Modern English’s vocabulary that goes back to Old English, and whereabouts in his own textbook he had given other reasons why half of Chaucer’s vocabulary was certainly not from French.

Speaking of “circular reasoning” but the best sense I could make of it was that he meant that half of the sorta snazzy-looking words, mostly nouns, that Chaucer used, mostly from French and that have since won themselves an air of refinement… are the only ones he really cared about.  It certainly didn’t cross his mind to count them. 

Speaking of a “sense of entitlement” but this is my best explanation for what gets ahead of educated people’s fact-checking ( or their “intellectual conscience” as either Aristotle or Nietzsche called it) such that they make such complacent pronouncements on the fly.  Somehow or other Latinate and Greek-based words enjoy better moral or existential rights than silly Old English ones.  “Doom is less literary than amartia” as I think Professor Tolkien put it.  They certainly seem to appeal to the vanity and debauch the intellects of people who get a sense of superiority out of them. 

Speaking of Professor Tolkien but it wasn’t a question of wanting to find fault, and not just because I'm not supposed to editorialise.  This professor of literature also spoke well of dear old The Lord of the Rings, taking a pointy stick to some of the prickly drivel talked about it by certain kinds of novelista.  Yet so far as I could tell his impression of the Old English was that of mead-swigging barbarians, so I made sure to draw his attention to the fact that the majority of surviving Old English written material is ecclesiastical.

Alas, I can't suggest any new educational ways or means for countering this bumspeak unless it’s simply to Know Your Stuff.  I enjoy drawing the attention of people under the impression that the Normans were French, and/ or the wonders done for our powers of self-expression by all this frogspeak they brought us, that there was no such place as France in 1066 and no such language as French until long after the Hundred Years War.  The beginning, repeat beginning of French national consciousness was one of the results of people like the Black Prince giving the 'French' a proper kicking.  Much as was the use of Francien, the patios of the Ile de France where the ‘French’ court was usually held, was made the language of royal written communications at this time, laying the foundations, repeat foundations of Modern French.  As I pointed out to the professor chap, this is why the ‘French’ learned by Chaucer’s Prioress was not that of Paris, and why the Anglo-Norman dialect spoken by William the Conqueror and most of his knights was a third thing again.  Calling that ‘Anglo-Norman’ is about the best that can be done.  The fact that the majority of soldiers in the French army still couldn’t speak French by 1871, when the Prussian-led North German Confederation gave them another proper kicking in the Franco-Prussian War of that oh-happy year, was one of the reasons the French came up with for why their attempt to invade Germany ( yes, they provoked it all) was less than successful.
It’s also useful to know the etymologies of some Latin- and Greek-based words that… aren’t.  Words like: abacus ( from Etruscan apcar, as are ‘Roman’ numerals), basalt ( from a North African language), Bible ( from Biblos, a city in the Levant), canon ( from Babylonian), literature ( no known Latin origin, the Romans are suspected of borrowing that from Etruscan too), hyacinth ( from a pre-Greek or ‘Pelasgian’ language) and map ( from Phoenician) are one way to put the ‘moron-’ into ‘oxymoron’ if ever the, ahem, ‘Classically educated’ are taking a superior attitude.  It’s either that or innocently allude to the fact that Zeno the Stoic, whose hare-not-overtaking-the-tortoise point debunked Platonic ‘science’… was a Phoenician.

The moral right of the author to be identified on Yigael’s Wall, excavated by the archaeologist Bugenhagen, has been asserted.

---many thanks, Bowerthane, for such a literate, no knowledgfull, reply!   I wonder what kind of a reply you got from the Professor?

About other words in our amazing language:  our family lived in Dubai back int he 80s and I fell into doing a bit of writing.   On occasions I wrote for the children's magazine of one of the local newspapers and was asked to do an article about the Arabian words contained in English.   On going through the Etymological English dictionary I found so many (and still missed some) that I ended up doing three pieces, making it into a story including the English words and then explaining how they came from Arabic at the end.  I assume that we managed to collect them during the Crusades?

If only English people weren't so snobbish about the origins of their own language...

Georius - JB:
Actually, people often percieve the development of language in "inaccurate" proportions: Lexicon is one linguistic variable that is incredibly susceptible to language change. It is often forgotten that:
  - Modern English preserves the fully functional preterite system, i.e. the system of strong verbs; an ancient system conditioned by Proto-Indo-European ablaut, which, as a counter-example is slowly starting to die away in German (verbs are slowly shifting to the weak verb system).
  - Modern English preserves the ancient r ~ s alternations, which are due to Verner's Law; e.g. was - were - Scandinavian, for instance, has generalised the r-variable ( Swedish: jag er, du er, han er, etc.)
  - Modern English preserves the ancient dental fricative thorn, which is a reflex of Proto-Indo-European *t, only surviving in Icelandic besides English.
  - The tense system is, to a large extent, parallel in its development to many modern Germanic languages.

There are more Germanic features which I could enumerate, but I am rather tired at this point  :)
It is crucial, that we realise that the lexicon is only one level of language. English is more Germanic than some people may imagine.


Thanks for that Georius, that certainly is an interesting aspect of language I'd love to know more about.
Could you possibly recommend any comprehensive books I could use to read up on it?


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page

Go to full version