Friday, September 01, 2006

Oh Give Me a Ham...

Linguistic reconstructionists only look back. It would make little sense to try to predict the form language will take. Language change occurs slowly and too many outside factors will influence its course. Who would have known that in 1066 the Norman Invasion would rattle that island so profoundly - or should we say deeply? And once those foreign boots began to bend the weeds there was no predicting what parts of their strange language would settle in. There was no predicting how politics and geography would cradle the co-bedding with French that would soon take place.

It's a tough task. But we can't call the changes random because we can look back and account for those things that did change - those things that didn't change - and looking back then around we can see many reasonable patterns that prove relevant in more that just our little language.

But I'll not make this that list. Let's give up on predicting for now. (Although I'll say it again: nother will make a comeback from Middle English and once again enter standard usage with a meaning synonymous to different.)

We know from comparing the stages of English from Old to Middle to Present-day (and all that in between) that some vowel and consonant sounds changed predictably. Here are the standard examples of vowel change that many English majors will recognize:

stān > stone
hām > home
scīnan > shine
bed > bed
hūs > house
mūs > mouse
gōd > good
Now we can say etc

Although we can make general claims about which types of words tended to persist from OE and which types tended to be adopted from other languages specifics elude us. We note that a significant kettle-full of words associated with food came from French into Middle English: beef [OFr boef]; poultry [MFr pouleterie little hen]; pork [OFr porc]; venison [OFr veneison]. (The first 3 originally referred to the animals generically. Venison referred to hunting.) And we find that some of the determining forces conflict. For example a language will protect words that are associated with religion. But the religious language that came to the Angles' land alongside (or within) Latin forced a change. So the church that promoted a faith [Anglo Norman fed < Latin fides] in salvation [f Latin salvatus] relied on the power of the Holy [OE hāliġ] Ghost [OE gāst]. Latin introduced religious words - and (Old) English held on to words because of that same religion.

Even when we can say with confidence that it will rain - we still can't say where and when.

Next time - Old English words that I wish were used today.

1 comment:

  1. One of my words today was cow. They brought out that the plural until the middle of the 17th cent. was kine, along the lines of oxen and children.


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