Thursday, 1 December 2011

Greetings fellow Earthkin

It’s hard to work out exactly how many words there are in the English language because English is such a mongrel tongue. Many words we use have been borrowed from other languages. Then there is the additional complication that many words can be used in different ways. The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains entries for 171,476 words in current use, 47,156 obsolete words and 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. That’s at least a quarter of a million distinct English words. But the simple word ‘set’ has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb and 10 as an adjective. It takes the Oxford English Dictionary 60,000 words to explain it. So do we count ‘set’ as one word or 194?

Despite the richness and diversity of our mother tongue, you may be surprised to hear that there are hundreds of English words - words not imported from anywhere else - that aren't in the dictionary. At least, not in the dictionary in this time-line ...

Before 1066 and the Norman conquest, English didn't really exist as we know it today. The Scots, Welsh, Manx and Cornish all spoke Celtic languages completely unrelated to English, as did pockets in Northumberland and other border areas. Individual kingdoms had their own local words, many of which have survived as dialect words. The most commonly spoken tongue was Old English or Anglo-Saxon and much of the modern language has descended from that. However, with the arrival of William the Bastard, everything changed. For centuries thereafter, French became the language of royalty and power and Latin was used for church and scientific matters. English became the language of the peasantry. You can see the influence of French on our language in words like parliament, government, aristocracy, minister etc. (try saying them with a French accent). We still say court martial even though it's a martial court.

But what if the Normans hadn't invaded? Or, if they had, what if Harold had got his act together and beaten them off? How different would modern English be without all of that French and Latin influence?

David Cowley, a languages scholar and teacher, wrote a nifty little book a few years ago called How we'd talk if the English had won in 1066. It's a nice little thought experiment. Many Anglo-Saxon words have mutated into words we still use today. So, therefore, it's been relatively easy for Cowley to extrapolate how other Old English words would be spelled and pronounced today, had they not been superceded by French words. For instance, the old word unabrecendlic would, these days, be 'unbreakingly' (inextricably). And asyndrung would become 'asundering' (separation, division). That second word is interesting because, even though many Anglo-Saxon words didn't make it into our everyday modern lexicon, a ghost of it still appears in the cliche 'rent asunder'. We no longer use the Old English ingang for 'entrance' but its meaning also survives in words like gangway and gangplank. And while we may not ascruten (investigate) any more, we do have such a thing as 'being under scrutiny'.

Here are some examples of words we might have been using:

Afterfollowingness - succession
Againcome - return
Awaydrive - dismiss
Birther - foetus, embryo
Blowness - inflation
Bonebreach - fracture
Candletree - candelabrum
Comer - visitor
Dearworth - precious
Drenchness - immersion
Earthkin - human race
Eatgiver - host at a meal
Enoughsome - plentiful
Farness - distance
Fingerly - digital
Firefood - fuel
Fleshbesmittenness - carnal attraction
Folkfree - uninhabited
Footly - pedestrian
Furtheringness - promotion
Gearingness - preparation
Gripness - Seizure
Hatethinkle - with hostile intentions
Headbold - confident
Hotheartness - zeal, rage
Idlebliss - vain joy
Inning - contents
Kneebowing - genuflection
Laughtersmith - comedian, jester
Learningchild - pupil
Longsomeness - tedium
Manyhuely - colourful
Misholdsomeness - incompetence
Mindworthy - worth remembering
Monthsickness - menstruation
Mouthroof - palate
Needness - necessary
Onbeshowing - inspection
Overdrinker - alcoholic
Ownslayer - suicidee
Plightly - dangerous
Readthoughter - literary commentator
Samedworking - cooperating
Seaupwarp - things washed up on beach
Shamefast - modest
Shipfight - battle at sea
Smearsalve - unguent, lotion
Stoneberg - hill
Thoughter - advisor
Towarpedness - perversion
Truelessness - deceit
Undeadly - safe
Underbear - support
Unglad - sad
Unhaveleness - destitute
Unholdsomeness - incontinence
Unlaughterworthy - serious
Unrightcrafting - poor quality
Upness - elevation
Weatherwendedness - changeability
Withchoose - reject
Woemoodness - depression
Wonderwork - impressive achievement
Yearmind - annual commemoration

Aren't they great? And wonderfully logical for the most part. The first thing they made me think of is the way that young children, while learning English, will make what they see as logical jumps and will come up with words like eated (ate) or biteful (snappy). We all know what an iceberg is so doesn't it make sense that a stoneberg is a hill, a highberg is a mountain and a seaberg is a cliff? That's what we might have been saying had the Normans lost.

Fascinating isn't it? It's a very nice little book and well worth buying. And it's self-published too so every little helps.

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