Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Disappearing Article on Anglo-Saxonisms

By BodieP posted on the Blood Red Pencil, but seems to have disappeared! I am reposting the entire article because I feel it is important. Why? Because our (English) language is a moving, breathing entity that is NOT under the law and auspices of the powers that be. Excellent article and I'd like to hear from Bodie about it.

"In the common words we use every day, souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men stand around us, not dead, but frozen into their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty." --Owen Barfield

It is a fact that conquerors write the history books--and determine the language in which they will be written. This is as true today as it was in 1066, when William the Bastard (so called because he was an illegitimate son—a “bastard”—and not because he was a mean, underhanded character) crossed the English Channel and defeated England’s King Harold at the Battle of Hastings to become William the Conqueror. Like the Norman nobles to whom he awarded England’s castles, fiefdoms, and plum government positions, William spoke Norman French.

For England’s commoners, the change was profound. Climbing from the ranks of field laborer or peasant to a more secure, less physically taxing job in the castle had always meant learning a skill of some kind--cooking, cleaning, child-minding, or, if one was of a clerkish turn, sums or, in rare instances, reading. When William stormed through, he left a new criterion in his wake. Economic and social advancement now required learning not only a skill, but the language of culture, of status, of the law, and of the new ruling class--Norman French.

And that’s why my mother once washed my mouth out with soap for saying “shit.” It was Lava, with a harsh topnote and a chalky undernote paired with a gritty texture, if anyone wants to know. I was what is commonly known as a “potty mouth,” and quite the connoisseur of soaps by that point. My mother justified her actions by saying it was “swearing”—which is wasn’t, my word of choice was a vulgarity, not a swear word. What neither of us knew was that my mother was doing what mothers have been doing for nearly a thousand years—reinforcing an old prejudice dating from the day that William decided to change his last name from Bastard to Conqueror. Here’s the story.

The Norman triumph in 1066 meant not only that England had a new king and ruling class, but that little children who had previously been praised for saying, "Gotta shit, ma," shortly before soiling their breech clothes rather than shortly after suddenly found themselves receiving slaps, and the stern injunction to use the French or Latin word for the function, rather than the "vulgar" word, the word used by the "common" people. The very words "vulgar" and "common," which had referred collectively to the vast majority of the people, became insults.

Previously widely-accepted Anglo-Saxon words became markers for lack of achievement, for stupidity, for dirt under one's fingernails, for, in the words of the auto manufacturers, those who must shower after work, as opposed to those who choose to shower before work.

The story might have ended there, except for a remarkable fact about the Anglo-Saxon heritage. Consider these facts:
• William the Bastard came from Normandy. He spoke Norman French.
• His nobles also came from Normandy, and spoke Norman French.
• The Anglo-Saxon mothers interested in advancing their children socially and politically forced their children to learn Norman French.
• For quite some little time, everyone who was anyone in England--spoke Norman French.
• So why don't we speak Norman French?

The answer is one of the interesting anomalies of history--we speak English for the same reason that we have Congress, and England has Parliament. We speak English because the Anglo Saxons had a long tradition of according certain rights to common folks--the people who throughout most of the world were seen as little more than cattle, and sometimes as less. That tradition filtered up the food chain in those castles, and the smarter nobles realized that there were very few of "us" and an awful lot of "them," and wouldn't it be great if "we" knew what "they" were saying? Many of the Norman nobles married Anglo-Saxon wives. For such couples, learning each other’s language was more or less a necessity. It wasn’t long after the conquest that an Anglo-Saxon noble wife was warning her Norman French husband of impending trouble—in English.

And so the nobles began what is arguably one of the great linguistic reversals in history. The winners might have written the history books--but the losers chose the language in which they wrote. In a triumph of practicality and humanism, Medieval England decided that language and communication was more important than making a point about who was in charge. English became the language of the land. But by then it was too late; some of the “word courtiers” had been frozen into decidedly uncourtly attitudes.

But that was all right. When English re-established itself as the language of power, it didn’t do it by defeating French so much as by absorbing it—a characteristic it has retained to the present day. Because English absorbed so many words from Norman French—experts estimate that the average non-French-speaking English speaker knows around 15,000 French words—we can express shades and nuances that simply aren’t possible in other languages. When English re-established itself as the language of power in England it did so with a drastically simplified grammar and a far richer vocabulary.

For example, we can refer to a rose’s “aroma,” as the Norman French did, its fragrance, its smell, its odor, or its “stench,” as the Old English did. In more common parlance, consider how the many words we have for foods made from ground grain and then cooked—we have bread, pancakes, tortillas, all of the pastas, baguettes, croissants, and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Our language reveals an important fact about our society—we conquer through syncretism and inclusion, rather than by subjection and exclusion.

We speak English because we are the fortunate heirs to an ancient tradition in which the words of everyone--not just those in power, are important. We speak English because in the Anglo-American tradition not only are we all subject to the same law, but we all have a right to be heard and understood. We speak English because common people matter.

But that doesn’t change the fact that our linguistic history has marked our perceptions. We still regard “common” and “vulgar” things as low-class, not middle-class. And, as my own experience bears out, mothers are still punishing their children for using good old Anglo-Saxon words not because the words themselves are “bad” (though that is often the justification) but because using the words frozen in “low” attitudes often brands us in public opinion, as well.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t need those words. Those vulgarities add a bass note to our linguistic choir. They carry their own nuance. English doesn’t just absorb words willy-nilly, but because it needs those words to reflect experience. As a wise scholar once said, “Shit happens.” As writer, nice lady, and reluctant chicken farmer Betty MacDonald says in her book The Egg and I, “Sometimes a ‘son of a bitch rolls trippingly off the tongue’.” If the day ever comes when shit no longer happens and Mrs. MacDonald is proven wrong about what rolls off the tongue, perhaps the words will fade away.

Note: This discussion applies only to vulgarities and in some cases obscenities, which refer to bodily functions, and not to curses and swearing, which generally involve the name of a religious figure or concept. Those words follow a different path altogether.

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