Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, had a very Germanic grammar. Verb conjugations were complicated, nouns and pronouns had different endings depending on how they were used in a sentence, and adjectives “agreed” with their nouns in number, case and gender. (If we hadn’t cleared all this useless rubbish out of the language we would still be spouting nonsense like this: I sit on thi biggi rocki, I throw thum biggum rockum, tho rocko is bigo. Tha girla, however, is biga and I go with thai biggai girlai to thi picturi showi. And so on.) That all changed after the Conquest, and by the time Chaucer was writing, English was well on the way to becoming the sleek and simple grammatical engine that it is today, freeing up untold billions of braincells for more useful tasks.
This grammatical simplicity is one of the reasons that English has become such a global language. Spelling aside, it is much easier to learn than languages with more complicated grammatical structures. Irregularities and verbal complexities are continually being eroded as the English language continues down the path of grammatical simplification on which William the Conqueror quite unintentionally set it.
At the same time, the presence of two languages side by side not only gave English a bigger stock of words than most languages have, it made English a language of subtle connotations. Animals in the field where the peasants dealt with them were known by their Saxon names: cow, pig, sheep. Killed, dressed and served up at feasts to the nobility, they became beef, pork and mutton — all based on the French words for those animals. English had parallel sets of words for body parts and functions, the “couth” ones usually coming from French, the uncouth ones from plain Saxon. Today’s English still follows this pattern: there are more words in our vocabulary than in most languages, and word choice can mean everything in English prose. In the famous examples from Time magazine, “Truman slunk from the room to huddle with his cronies,” while “Ike strode from the chamber to confer with his advisers.” We have our blunt Anglo-Saxon epithets and our precise Norman-French euphemisms, and the habit of hospitality, the openness to loan words from many languages, continues to enrich English to this day.
Unfortunately, the Conquest struck a mighty blow against sensible spelling in English as well. With Germanic and French sounds mingling in the vocabulary and pronunciation changing from generation to generation as the two language streams reacted on one another, vowels changed their quality and consonants did strange things. The two letter combination “gh” once meant something; now we pronounce it like an “f” (tough), like a regular “g” (ghost) or like nothing at all (Hillsborough). French vowel sounds mutated into English ones, gutteral Germanic sounds got frenchified, consonant clusters rose and fell, accentuation wreaked havoc with vowel quantities and bit by bit we created the insane orthographic mess that we thrash about in today.
An ear for the difference between Saxon and Norman-French based words remains important even in popular literature. In the Harry Potter books, the good characters often have trustworthy Saxon or Celtic surnames (Weasley, Dumbledore) while you can tell the bad guys by their evil French names like Malfoy (bad faith) and Voldemort (flight of death). “Muggles” is about as Anglo-Saxon as an invented word can get, and to English ears it sounds like a word that ought to exist even if you have never heard it before.
The historical roots of modern English play an even larger role in Tolkien’s work. Tolkien is one of those rare writers who can give you good Anglo-Saxons like the Riders of Rohan (whose vocabulary and poetic meters are pure Anglo-Saxon) and good people who use a more Norman and Latinate vocabulary—like the people of Gondor and the elves. Tolkien’s own sense of the evolution of the English language influences the Lord of the Rings at almost every level.
Monday, October 15, 2012
The importance of 1066
With regards to our language. [Link]