Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday English!

It might be kind of arbitrary to call this the birthday of English, but if you had to pick a day for the birth of the language as we know it, this one might be it. I spotted this today in a newsletter I get called The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, and on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.

The Norman invasion had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

We wouldn't have this language as we speak it without the Norman invasion of Britain. And we wouldn't have one of the things I really love about it: two different vocabularies, each suited to a different level of politeness. When I used to teach English to ESL students, I told the high-level ones that if they were ever confused about which word was the more polite, the more formal, the more scientific; pick the longer one. 'Talk' or 'converse'? 'Spit' or 'expectorate'? 'Walk' or 'perambulate'? 'Trip' or 'voyage'? You want the gutsy, visceral (and there's another example!) version of a word, go for the Germanic. You want the fancy, formal version, go for the Latinate.

There's just so much you can do with English. It's a complete hodgepodge of Celtic, Germanic and Norman roots with a whole bunch of loan words grafted on. Sure, it's a bit of a creole, a chimera, a kluge, a mongrel. That's what's so awesome about it.

So, thanks for the invasion, William. Happy birthday (joyous anniversary), English. 

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