Monday, August 27, 2018

A Brief History of English


A recent exchange one Usenet about some vagaries of English prompted me to gather my understanding of its history into a short essay. It's highly simplified, but the outlines of the history are accurate enough.

The history of English has two main themes: the words (lexicon) come from many sources, while the grammar is fundamentally a simplified Germanic one, marked by an almost complete absence of grammatical gender.

First, there were the prehistoric peoples, who as far as we know left no traces in the English language. Then there were the Britons, a motley crew of miscellaneous Celtic tribes. These were conquered by the Romans, whose language had some influence on the Celtic dialects, mostly in place names. They built forts and roads, and romanised the indigenous people. Many place names date back to the Roman occupation, for example London (from londinium), and names ending in -chester, -cester, or -caster (from L. castellum).

From about 450 AD, several northwest European peoples invaded the Island. The first ones were the Angles and Saxons, followed by the Danes and the Norwegians. The Anglo-Saxons brought their languages with them, and adopted or adapted some names and words from the Celts they displaced or enslaved. For example “car” (originally from Latin), the Avon, Salisbury (Salis- from Celtic Sorvio, a personal name), and many other placenames in southwestern England. The Danish and Norwegian invasions affected the northen and eastern Anglo-Saxon dialects, which are still distinct from the southern and midland dialects that became the language of the court. Anglo-Saxon was written is a jumble of dialects that are mutually intelligible enough that they form a language.

In 1066, William the Bastard of Normandy conquered England and brought Norman French with him as the language of government and trade. Over the next couple of centuries, the existing Anglo-Saxon dialects and Norman French blended into what we now think of as Middle English. By 1400, it was not only a practical language but a literary one: Geoffroy Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales in his Middle English, London-centric dialect. It became the source of modern English, which in vocabulary is basically Anglo-Saxon with a thick overlay of French, and a grammar regularised and simplified as Anglo-Saxon and Norman French speakers mashed up their languages into a mutually intelligible creole. Hence cow, bull, cattle for the animals, beef for their meat. Anglo-Saxon houses and fields made up French real property. French and English shared a common plural ending -s, which became the near-universal way of making plural nouns.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Latin and Greek words were adopted into the vernacular all over Europe. In English, that produced “church”, “bishop” and “bible”, for example. During the Renaissance, English, like other European languages, absorbed many more Latin and Greek words. By the later Middle Ages, scholars had fallen into the habit of using Latin and Greek terms when writing in their local languages, and still do so today.

In 1473, Caxton brought printing to England. During the 1400s and early 1500s, Middle English was evolving into Early Modern English. Printers wanted standard spelling (and to some extent also standard vocabulary) to widen the market for their books. Thus, English spelling became standardised at a time when its pronunciation changed rapidly. The result is the most inconsistent spelling system in the world: each of the main streams of language that make up the Modern English lexicon has its own spelling system.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Floods and misleading clues: Babes in the Wood (Ruth Rendell).

Ruth Rendell. Babes in the Wood (2002) Rain, rain, and more rain. Rising floodwaters cover roads, bridges, and Wexford’s lawn. Two missing children and their minder are presumed drowned. But Wexford doesn’t think so. A leisurely telling of a tangled tale leads to a plausibly tangled solution. Rendell is really more interested in psychology than in police procedure. We get some more about Wexford’s family. Burden is little more than a well-dressed sounding board for Wexford’s musings. A good read for the fans, but not up to Rendell’s past standards. **

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A long way round to the truth: Shake Hands Forever (Ruth Rendell)

Ruth Rendell. Shake Hands Forever (1975) Mrs Hathall, an unpleasant mother-in-law, arrives at her son Robert’s carefully cleaned and polished home, and finds her daughter-in-law Angela dead on her bed. Robert’s reactions are oddly muted, which convinces Wexford he did it. It takes a year, and his nephew Howard’s help, for Wexford’s suspicions to be justified, with a twist that only the most alert reader is likely to suss before Wexford does. Burden for once is skeptical of Wexford’s theory, and does nothing to help.
     Well done, with Rendell’s usual psychological insights. Since we believe with Wexford that Robert is guilty, the story deals with how Wexford solves the puzzle. A good read for any Wexford fan, but not the best introduction to Wexford and Burden. **½

Friday, August 17, 2018

Everything Connects: The Knowledge Web (James Burke)

     James Burke. The Knowledge Web (1999) Many years ago, when students complained that the stuff they had to learn was useless, I pontificated: “There’s no such thing as useless knowledge. At the very least, some fact will connect two other facts. You just don’t know which ones, until you do it.”
     James Burke’s books and TV programs inspired this insight, and this one demonstrates another fact about knowledge: it’s all connected, somehow. It could be two people who know each other. It could be a problem to which someone else’s published insight provides a clue. It could be an idle question about some oddity. It could be deliberate speculation about possible answers. It could be knowledge brought into an apparently unrelated field. It could be – well, you get the idea.
     The book also attempts to use a kind of hyperlink. Every now and then, numbers in the margin direct you to another reference to the same person or fact. You don’t have to read the book one page after another. The links lead through the web by another path.
     Nowadays, we can click our way from one link to another. And with all such links, you depend on some other person recognising the connection and inserting the links. Most such links these days are designed to lead you to another product to buy.
     Burke’s TV series Connections of 1976 predates the world wide web. This book builds on the insights and methods presented in that series and the book based on it, The Day the Universe Changed. Worth reading just for the fun of recognising how the bits and pieces of history link up. Good index and bibliography make this a reference book as well. ***

Monday, August 06, 2018

The body's afterlife: Stiff by Mary Roach

     Mary Roach. Stiff (2003) Roach writes about the afterlife of cadavers, from providing organs for transplant to testing the effects of bullets to giving medical students understanding of human anatomy to uses you would never have thought of yourself. She writes well, has a nice sense of humour, and demonstrates a good deal less squeamishness than most of her readers. Highly recommended. ****

Friday, August 03, 2018

More about Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker: Milk and Honey

     Faye Kellerman. Milk and Honey (1990) Number three in the Rina Lazarus-Peter Decker saga. Driving home late at night, Decker catches a glimpse of something. U-turns, drives back, sees nothing, stops and walks, finds a toddler on a front-lawn swing. The woman in the house says the girl is not hers, so Decker takes her down to the station and starts the process of finding her family. That leads to four murders, a dysfunctional family, and miscellaneous cross-currents and subplots. In addition, Decker’s old army buddy has been accused of rape and violence. Rina returns from New York, where she’s been for six months as she and Peter try to confirm their love. Peter continues his talmudic studies. The resolution includes more backstory about Peter’s Vietnam war service.
     Well written, with good use of dialogue to advance story and reveal character. Weak on ambience: Kellerman doesn’t spend much time on city- or landscape. We do feel the weather, though, it’s hot. A bit heavy on gore. Nevertheless, I liked the book. **½