Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Somewhere there is a cartoon, or a quotation from someone famously witty, about how English is the sort of language which followed other languages down dark alleys and beat them up for their words, and added them to its vocabulary.

Other languages have National Academies to maintain and protect their language and vocabularies; English doesn’t. It borrows, adapts, modifies. It steals and bastardises, and enriches.

English, at its most basic, is a Germanic language. I understand that the easiest language for a native English speaker to learn is Dutch, being as how it’s reasonably close to that which we call Old English. Somewhere in Frisia, apparently, the language spoken today would be understandable by an Englishman from before the Norman Conquest.

After William I and the Norman Conquest, though, French crept in, as English nobles adopted the language of their conquerors in a bid to maintain independence and status. High status things, things which were spoken of in court or polite society, anything of prestige, used French terms. Low status things, those spoken of by the peasants who didn’t matter, remained English. Hence cow, but beef. Sheep, but mutton. Pig, but pork. It took several hundred years before the King of England spoke English as his mother-tongue again: Henry IV, born 1367.

This lasted until George I in 1714, whose native language was German. At this point, though, English was more secure; it was the language of the upper classes and the Church. Parliament governed in English; laws written in English. George had to learn English to rule. He had not conquered; he was invited. Chosen above over fifty Roman Catholics with better and nearer claims to the throne, and who spoke English.

But English had already taken from the German branch of Indo-European, so George did not have the same effect as William I. Instead, as English sailors set out across the ocean blue, they found other languages, new and wonderful languages, and brought back new words with their other, more tangible, booty. Bungalows and pyjamas. Chocolate (via Spain).

One thing I like about reading historical fiction is the language used by the author. Some write entirely in modern English, others use smatterings of period-specific language. I don’t mean the olde worlde sort of English, with peculiar, forced phrasings and clunky sentences. I mean, the actual words themselves.

My favourite example of this is the use of the word frape in a book written long before the creation of Facebook, let alone its use as a contraction of Facebook rape, in a book about John, 1st Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry V. A frape is a crowd, or a rabble, and the OED records its first use as being in approximately 1330.

I will say now that the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, is my standard for English. Its spellings is how they ought to be; its definitions how they should be used. I love the OED. It gives me histories and etymologies. Examples of usage from through the centuries. Anyone who prefers another dictionary is sadly deluded. If I could afford a print copy of the OED, I would have all twenty-six volumes. As I can’t, I’m very grateful my library cards give me online access. For me, it is the arbiter on all things English-language.


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