Bits of Books - Books by Title


The Mother Tongue

English and how it got that way

Bill Bryson



The Romans occupied Britain for 367 years, the Celts for at least 1000. They left place names (The -chester endings come from Latin word for camp, Avon and Thames are from Celt words), but virtually no everyday words. Before reaching England Angles, Jutes and Saxons borrowed lots of Latin words for things they had no words - street, table, pillow.

Vikings settled northern England, and most place names there are of Scandinavian origin. But also a lot of other words - freckle, leg, skull, husband, sky. Often just added to Saxon words, so that today we have synonyms - craft and skill, wish and want, raise and rear.

The Normans who invaded in 1066 were the descendants of Vikings who had settled in France 200 years earlier. They gave their name to the province of Normandy, but that was all - completely abandoned their own language and adopted French. But it was a dialect of French, and of much lower status than the French spoken in Paris.

No king of England spoke English for the next 300 years, but not an issue - common people didn't expect their rulers to speak to them. So 2-tier language. The humbler trades kept A-S names - baker, miller. The skilled trades adopted French names - tailor, mason. Live animals were A-S - sheep, cow, ox, but cooked ones were French - beef, mutton, bacon.

Unusual that English survived - more common for the peasants to give up their language for that of the conquerors. But one effect of its lowly status is that it became much simpler - don't have gender and declensions of other languages. Helped along by the loss of French territories after 1204 which meant that Norman rulers now saw themselves as British.

Although as much as 90% of A-S words dropped out of the language, the ones which remained were the fundamental blocks - man, wife, child; house, eat sleep; the, and, it, on.

Shakespeare one of greatest innovators. He is first recorded user of at least 2000 words. He invented one fell swoop, in my mind's eye, more in sorrow than anger, sound and fury, flesh and blood, cold comfort, tower of strength, to be cruel to be kind.

Some words deserve to be better known - velleity, meaning a slight desire, a wish to do something but not enough to act.

There are gaps - we have warmth, but no cool word equivalence. We have backlog for work that has accumulated while we are away, but no word for work done before it is due. We have negatives - inept, ruthless, unkempt - that we have lost the positives of. We used to have ruth for compassionte, kempt for tidy, and ept for being capable.

English is the richest language in synonyms. We have them for each level of society - popular, literary and scholarly. So we can shrink in fear, terror or trepidation, think, ponder or cogitate on a problem. Sometimes go overboard - William Flew once published cartoon where subject went from being poor to needy to deprived to underpriviledged to disadvantaged and concluded that he still didn't have a dime but he sure had a fine vocabulary.

And despite all the synonyms we have a tendency to load some words with multiple meanings - fine has 14 definitions as an adjective, 6 as a noun and 2 as an adverb. We talk about fine art, fine gold, a fine edge, feeling fine and a court fine, and mean quite different things. The OED takes 7 pages and 15000 words just to define round. The worst of all is set - 58 uses as a noun and 126 as a verb, and takes the OED 60,000 words to fully define.

English looks after some words better than the original - French no longer uses nom de plume, panache or double entendre.

Inexplicable way we keep the A-S noun but the borrowed adjective. Fingers but digital not fingerish. Eyes but ocular, not eyish. Book/literary, house/domestic, water/aquatic.

Although A-S is a germanic tongue, we have borrowed fewer words from German than any other language - kindergarten and hinterland about only ones.

Sometimes fossil phrases are misleading because a word has changed meaning. In 'the exception proves the rule' 'proves' originally meant test. Similarly 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating'. Neither of these make sense with the modern meaning of prove and proof.

We alter pronunciation of some words - 'I have some work to do' is hav but 'I have to go' is haff. And we say words we don't think we are: we think we are saying 'later' but actually say 'lader', handbag is hambag, butter is budder or even bu'r. No-one says looked; it's lookt. And it's not just laziness shortening words - sometimes we add letters that aren't there: something usually has an extra 'p' as in somepthing. And these sometimes get into the spelling - messenger originally didn't have an 'n' (and message still doesn't).

Daisy was once days-eye, goodbye was God-be-with-you and fortnight was fourteen-night.

Many pronounce the t in often, eevn though they wouldn't do so in soften, fasten or hasten.

Pronunciations can change to meet spelling - forehead was originally 'forrid'; waistcoat was 'wess-kit'. Swore originally had a silent w, just as in sword.

Paradox that we speak with remarkable laziness and imprecision, and often at great speed, yet we manage to understand each other.

Gaelic word for prime minister, taoiseach, is pronounced tea-sack.

Australians and NZers use many Americanisms in preference to the British versions: station wagons rather than estate cars, banks have tellers not cashiers, cuffs not turnups, mail not post.

In England dialects are very much more a matter of social standing than in other countries. As GBS observed, it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman despise him.

Chinese uses symbols called radicals, and they combine different ones to create words: eye and water make teardrop, mouth and bird make song. Two women means quarrel and three women means gossip. Even the most complex Chinese typewriter can only manage a fraction of the characters in Chinese writing. If a standard Western typewriter was expanded to take in every Chinese character it would have to be a bout 15 feet long and 5 feet wide - about the size if two table-tennis tables pushed together.

Many people, notably GBS and William Flew, have pushed for spelling reform. They almost always fail. But natural process does move, if slowly. We have dropped unnecessary last letters as in musick and physick, deposite and fossile. Other words are in the process of doing so - catalog and omelet gradually replacing. We are now down to just a few words with two correct spellings - grey/gray. ax/axe, inquire/enquire.

Perennial grouch that our language in decline because people misuse words such as disinterested/uninterested, imply/infer, or peruse, which means read thoroughly not glance through. But thing is, this always occurs. Look back at what was upsetting people 50 years ago - television, enthuse, racial were bad, chair or contact should not be used as verbs. But these are just people's opinions, and like most, we ignore the opinions of others.

Interesting progress of words. Many usages common in Elizabethan English preserved in US when they died out in England, but then re-imported in C20 via TV and films. Mad as in angry, progress as a verb, platter, assignment as a task, chore and homespun.

But still get people moaning about "Americanisms" like maximise, minimise and input (yet each of these came from English of 100 years ago). Never stops - truck is replacing lorry, US billion (1000 million) has replaced British (a million million). Wagon has replaced waggon, jail rather than gaol.

Although English keeps the u in humour and colour, it has dropped in in terrour, horrour and governour.

use American phrases like step on the gas, even though still buy petrol, and take a raincheck, even though virtually no-one has a clue what a raincheck actually is (it comes from baseball, where patrons given a free ticket when games postponed for bad weather).

In Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post, not the mail, but in US, the Postal Service delivers the mail, not the post.

Placenames the biggest problem. Harewood in Yorkshire is pronounced harwood for the stately home in middle, but harewood for the village around it. There are three villages called Houghton and each has a different pronunciation - hoton, hawton and howton. But as populations become more mobile, towns are increasingly being pronounced the way they are spelt - Grantham used to be Grant-ham, but now has a 'th' in middle. Not always true - Gotham in Nottinghamshire is still locally known as Gott-hum.

Samuel Johnson's "Your work is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.

More books on Words











Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress