By Greg Hill
“25 Maps That Explain the English Language” is a marvelously informative way to look at our mother tongue. It’s difficult to convey graphic maps in print, so a visit to the source, www.Vox.com, is worth the effort. Any description I attempt of Minna Sundberg’s gorgeous “Comprehensive Overlook of the Nordic Languages in Their Old World Families” is doomed to failure. However, the article incudes excellent textual information, too. For example, the maps cover the major evolutionary epochs in English’s development; some that you might know readily, like “The Anglo-Saxon Migration,” but others, such as “Danelaw” and “The Great Vowel Shift,” are less familiar.
It was news to me that 4,500 Anglo-Saxon words are still in use, like “day,” “year,” “think,” “kiss” and “love,” which amount to about 1 percent of all modern English. Danelaw is the period of the Denmark-based Viking invasion of Britain under lamentably nicknamed Ivar the Boneless, beginning in the 800s. Norse terms that remain in the vocabulary include “law,” “murder,” and the pronouns “they,” “them” and “their.” But while “leg” and “husband” are Norse, “arm” and “wife” are Anglo-Saxon. William and the Normans arrived in 1066, infusing all sorts of fancy French words into our language. So while the coarse Anglo-Saxons “sweated,” the Normans “perspired.”
The Great Vowel Shift describes the striking evolution in pronunciation that occurred for unknown reasons between 1400, the age of Chaucer’s Middle English, and 1700, the time of DeFoe and Swift. In essence, English-speakers began pronouncing long vowels higher up in their mouths than their predecessors. The example given on the Geoffrey Chaucer page on Harvard.edu, is “Middle English ‘long e’ in Chaucer’s ‘sheep’ had the value of Latin ‘e’ (and sounded like Modern English ‘shape’)”. Not all words with those vowels shifted, and words with “ea” usually kept their old pronunciations. But you can blame the GVS for “steak” and “streak” not rhyming, and “mice” no longer being pronounced “meese.”
It’s no wonder that Chinese speakers find English as difficult to grasp as English and Spanish speakers find Greek. Shakespeare wrote “It’s all Greek to me” in Julius Caesar, and some Spanish etymologists say that “gringo” comes from “hablar en griego,” meaning “to speak in Greek, or unintelligibly.” A recent WashingtonPost.com article on this said, “The phrase actually comes from a Medieval Latin proverb, ‘Graecum est; non potest legi,’ meaning ‘It is Greek; it cannot be read.’”
The Language Log page on UPenn.edu provides a “Directed Graph of Stereotypical Incomprehensibility,” a title that ought to discourage most Chinese readers. It’s a flow-chart with circles showing the 36 major languages with arrows pointing out which languages are incomprehensible to the speakers of others. Arabic speakers, for instance, also find Greek enigmatic, and also Hindi. Persians find Turkish cryptic, while the Turks find French trying, French find Chinese mystifying, the Chinese find English puzzling; we also find Dutch troubling, the Dutch find Latin perplexing, and Latin speakers say the same about Greek.
Nonetheless, a study released by Northwestern University last fall found that “Speaking more than one language is good for the brain” since “bilingual speakers process information more efficiently and more easily … The benefits occur because the bilingual brain is constantly activating both languages and choosing which language to use and which to ignore …When the brain is constantly exercised in this way, it doesn’t have to work as hard to perform cognitive tasks, the researchers found.” This is scary news for those of us who find all other languages challenging, because our sad crowd’s brains, for better or worse, are simply wired differently. Fortunately, our public library has a wealth of language-learning aides, including the wonderful Mango database, a slew of books and CDs, as well as foreign-language movies.
Many of our greatest wordsmiths, like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill, drew often on the Anglo-Saxon part of the vocabulary. The president’s friend William Jayne wrote, “Mr. Lincoln’s language and style were Anglo-Saxon; he was not a classical scholar, his words were English pure and clear … The common people understood his arguments.”
Or as Mark Twain put it, “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479‑4344.
Via Charles Tiayon