Bible Verse of the Day

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Speak... speech... talk... I'm listening

There’s a lot more to language than meets the eye. Take the word admiral, for instance. Who would imagine that its direct ancestor wore baggy trousers and a jewelled turban and lolled around on divans gobbling Turkish delight? Yet such is the case, for the English word admiral descends, via Old French, from the Arabic word amir, meaning “commander.”
Words travel as tirelessly as people. They travel in the knapsacks of armies or in the manuals of computer salesmen. They travel with missionaries and refugees, with troubadours and film makers. They cross oceans, jump ship and settle in foreign lands.
English has had the most spectacular success, both as a globetrotter and as a haven for travel—stained visitors. Unlike Latin - derived tongues such as French, Spanish or Italian, with more rigid grammatical rules and a reluctance to borrow from others, Anglo-Saxon (or English) has long had wide-open immigration policies. It emerged from the Norman Conquest bare of frills and grammatical niceties - and ravenously hungry for new means of expression. And in gobbling up words from every source, English gave them a new vigour.
Consider how gusto, a modest Italian settler meaning “taste,” took on its present hearty, lip-smacking, beer-drinking personality. Morsel, which means a delectable tit-bit, owes its parentage to the French morcel, meaning simply “piece.” The ancestor of knight was the lowly German Knecht, or “man-at- arms,” who trailed a humble spear behind the blue-blood, the mounted Ritter, or “rider.” Somehow Knecht muscled its way to new social status once it reached English shores.
English is better equipped than most other languages to assimilate foreign words because of its loose, half-breed structure: one of its parents is Germanic (via Old English), the other Latin (largely via the church and Norman French).
Like humans, words go in for reverse migrations, returning to the mother country often so transformed that they are not even recognized as native sons. Such a word is pedigree, long an English citizen but transplanted to France and pronounced peh-dee-gray. Few French-speakers realize that this seemingly alien word is as French as bouillabaisse. In medieval genealogical tables the accepted shorthand for “begat” was the mark > (as in “John and Mary Smith > Peter Smith”). The mark was known as pie de grue, or “crane’s foot,” and over the years English accents chipped away at the French expression until it had acquired its present shape and sound. When it travelled back to France in the nineteenth century, the word pedigree was accepted by the French as a term coined by foreigners obsessed with bloodlines of the landed gentry, of racehorses and of retrievers.

Largely for reasons of national pride, the French often try mightily to deport foreign words. If that fails, they attempt native replacements. The French Academy, a distinguished body that holds itself responsible for maintaining the chastity of the national tongue, labours untiringly towards this goal, coming up with such unhappy coinages as fin de seinaine (“end of week”) as an attempt to dislodge the unspeakably foreign weekend. Alas, it’s an uphill struggle for the French, partly because many of today’s new words come from space, computers and other areas of advanced technology dominated by experts speaking English, Russian and Japanese. Generally, though, efforts to repel foreign boarders just don’t work. For example, know-how (as in le know-how technologique) is now solidly entrenched in France. And when confronted with brinkmanship, coined to describe the foreign-policy philosophy of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, an exhausted French Academy threw up its-collective hands. The language just didn’t have that kind of shorthand capacity; its solution? Highly indigestible La politique du bord du gouffre, literally “the politics of the border of the gulf.” Phew!
Perhaps the last word should be left to the Italians. What was the smooth-flowing Italian language to make of the hideously barbaric Shakespearean? That tweedy sh, those baggy diphthongs, that spiky k. Mamma mia! An impossible dilemma? Not -to the Italians A snip-snip here and there, a discreet consignment of that hideous k to the rubbish bin, and presto! The gawky tourist easily became a lithe Italian - scespiriano, pronounced shess-pirr-eeAH-no. Yet another foreign invader had succumbed to Italy’s beguiling and civilizing charm. (J. Leggatt)

Just so, I think all languages are wonderful tools; essential to getting the world to be as one – and if all else fails the universal language of LOVE is always an unfailing stalwart… ~ Stafford


  1. Bill Chapman2/22/2012 11:03 pm

    You write, "I think all languages are wonderful tools; essential to getting the world to be as one". Fine. WEhat do you think of Esperanto, a language specifically designed to bring people together?

    1. Hi Bill... admittedly I'm no scholar of languages. I have of course heard of 'Esperanto', but I've never explored it. given what you say is the intention of it's existence, i'll be sure to give it a study - thank you for reading, Staf (",)