Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Four, The Angles

An Anglo-Saxon warrior in the middle of a mathelode
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

People who use the phrase Old English often don't have a clue what they're talking about.  They'll say, "I don't dig Shakespeare and all that Old English stuff."  What they don't realize is, Shakespeare is Modern English, and Old English is a whole nother language altogether.  Up to now in this series, I've had to be very careful to refer to Britain and not England, because until the arrival of the Angles, there was no England.  England comes from Angle-land, the land of the Angles, and what they spoke was Old English, only they didn't call it Old English, because they didn't know any better.  If they called it anything at all, they just called it Anglish or something.

To give you an idea what Old English was like, here's the opening lines from Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gardena  in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

What the what, right?  At one time, I could actually read that, but now I'm so out of practice I'm probably no better than you.  You can recognize the words "we" and "in" and you might spot "how" (hu) and "the" (ða).  Hwæt is where we get the modern "what" (the transposition of the letters is called metathesis) only in Old English, it didn't mean "what."  As far as I can tell, it didn't mean anything.  It was just an interjection, like "yo!" or "holla!"

The other thing you might notice is something that looks like the letter "p" only someone overshot the down-stroke, and a lower-case "d" with a bow tied on it.  Those things are not d's or p's, they're entirely different letters we no longer possess, the thorn and the ash.  The thorn and ash make perfect sense and would have been really useful; they sound like "th."  (As a kid it bothered me that "th" was pronounced the way it is, instead of "tuh-huh" which is clearly what it spells.)  I'm not sure why there were two letters for the same sound, but maybe one was for the inward-sucking "th" like "thin" and the other was for the outward-blowing "th" like "then."

The ash and thorn left their mark on contemporary English in a very small way.  If you've ever seen one of those kitschy signs like "Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe" or "Ye Olde Jiffy Lube," the ye isn't pronounced ye at all.  It doesn't mean "your" or "you," it means "the," and that's just the way it's pronounced.  The "y" is meant to represent an ash or a thorn, although why they picked a "y" when those letters clearly more resemble a "p" or a "d," I couldn't tell you.

Another remarkable thing about Old English was its grammar was highly synthetic.  To see what this means, think of high school Spanish.  It's not enough to know the word for "cat" (gato) or whether you're dealing with one cat or a dozen ("gato" or "gatos") you have to know if the word is masculine or feminine, (masculine) and then every modifier has got to agree in number and gender with gato.  So you can't say, "Las gatos son loco," because "las" is feminine and "loco" is singular, so you have to say, "Los gatos son locos," if you're going to mention them at all.  It was the same way in Old English, except on steroids.  

Words in Old English didn't just change for number and gender but based on what they were doing in a sentence.  Like if a word was the subject of a sentence, you'd end it with -a, but if it was a direct object, you'd end it with -an, and then you had to do likewise with all the modifiers.  In Modern English, if I say, "The old pirate owned a green parrot," it means just the opposite of, "The green parrot owned an old pirate," but in Old English, it would come out like, The-an green-an parrot-an owned an-a old-a pirate-a," and everyone would know the pirate was doing the owning, not the one owned.  Moreover, you could put the words in almost any order, and your meaning would still be clear.  You could say the equivalent of "Owned the parrot the pirate green old," and no one would so much as blink.   If you'd forgot to mention the pirate had a peg leg or the parrot a speech impediment, you could just toss those words in at the end, and your meaning would still be clear as glass.  This would have been very handy for people who tend to screw up punchlines.

The Angles, by the way, were very big on jokes, only they were Anglo-Saxon-type jokes, with a heavy-handed emphasis on ironic understatement.  For example, if during battle, you got your arm hewn off at the shoulder, you might quip, "Mercy sakes, I believe I have a scratch."  Maybe you had to be there, but the Angles found this sort of thing hi-larious.  They also loved ironic overstatement especially when doing something called a mathelode.  A mathelode was kind of an exaggerated brag about how tough you were and how you ate nails for breakfast and all the damage you would do once you got on the battlefield, and in spite of being a brag, it was not only acceptable, it was expected.  I think it must've been like double-dog-daring your own self; if you publicly said and in a loud voice you were going out and killing a hundred men, you'd have to kill at least a dozen or you wouldn't have been able to face your buddies again.  The flip-side of the mathelode was called flyting, and it was kind of an insult-contest, like playing the numbers or jonesing.  You know, like, "Yo mamma so fat, she don't fit in this joke.  Oh, snap."  (Snap means like, "hwæt.")  The Anglo-Saxons didn't talk about mammas, though, and even their insults had a way of emphasizing how tough everyone was: "You are so reckless, I bet you go swimming in the ocean just to kill sea-serpents."  Again, maybe you had to be there.

Make no mistake about it, the Angles were some tough dudes.  They were so tough, they were dumb.  Like, if you said someone was a little "hard under the helmet," that was considered a compliment.  Nevertheless, they had a certain gift for metaphor, especially something called a kenning.  It's easier to give examples of kennings that to define them, so here goes.  The sea might be called a "whale road," or the human body, a "bone house."  Get it?  You can almost imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior who's a little hard under the helmet after maybe taking a few too many cudgel-blows to the noggin, stroking his chin and saying, "Sa-a-ay," as the meaning slowly dawns on him.  A few modern-day kennings would be like "Chicken of the sea," or "Fruit of the loom."

Like Old English, Modern English is still considered a Germanic language, even though only about 25% of our words are Germanic in origin, and almost none of those are recognizable from their Old English analogues.  How we got from that mess to our current mess is the subject of upcoming blogs.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Three, the Romans Move Out

The last legionnaire had scarcely packed his suitcase
when here come a bunch of crazy Picts out of Scotland
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

The Romans ran things in Britain from about the year 43 until 400, and the Romanized Celts got used to the way things were and built mines and cities and bathhouses and all sorts of modern appurtenances, and meanwhile any crazy Scots or Saxons who wanted to pick a fight, had to deal with the Roman legions first.  It's easy to be a Monday-Morning Emperor and say it was inevitable they'd have to pull out sooner or later, but again, I'll point out the Roman occupation lasted 400 years.  The Fifth Century was a busy one for Rome.  Alaric was leading Visigoths as far down as Sicily, Attila was raising hell with his Huns, and every time it seemed like there might be a breather, someone came down with the plague.  That's how it is for your really big empires, just one thing after another.  So long story short, the Romans left Britain and turned over management to the locals.  We're trying the same thing in the Middle East right now, and if the Roman experience is any indication, things might not go smoothly.

Having the Romans around was like having your big brother beat up anyone who picks on you.  It's all well and dandy until your brother goes off to college, and then what do you do?  The last legionnaire hadn't finished packing his suitcase, when Picts - which were some of the crazy Scots that the Romans never got around to subduing - poured down into the south like ants to a picnic.  The next part is probably historical hogwash, but it's such a cool legend, I can't help repeating it.  The British King Vortigen invited two brothers - Hengist and Horsa (their names both mean "horse") to bring over some Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to help repel the invasion.  If this is true, it's like inviting Tony Soprano to help you deal with Don Corleone.  Hengist and Horsa were only too happy to help.  They helped themselves to Wessex, Sussex, and Essex for starters.  Although they weren't called that until the Saxons got there: the -sex suffix has nothing to do with the hibbidy-bibbidy; it's derived from "Saxon," ie West Saxony, South Saxony, and East Saxony.

The Angles, who comprised most of the invaders, came from a little place no one had paid much attention to before, a place called Angeln, so named because it was shaped like an angle, a little fishhook-looking peninsula.  Luckily, it wasn't called Fishhook, otherwise we'd all be speaking Fishhookish.

Now I'm not saying there was, but if there was a King Arthur, this is when he would've lived: a Romanized Celtic King fighting against Saxon invaders.  Hence his Latin name, Artorius, and the Latin name of his sword, Excalibur, "without equal."

The original story, as far as I can make out is that Arthur was doing pretty well repelling the Saxons, when some Romans come back demanding tribute, and Arthur's like, "F-- that," only he says it in Welsh.  And he takes his best knights to go teach the Romans a lesson, leaving his nephew Mordred behind with Guinevere, the queen.

Well, Arthur doesn't return, and doesn't return, and Mordred gets antsy, and says, "Look, Gwen, it's pretty clear what's happened.  Your husband's had a good run of it of to now, but he's finally met his match.  His head's probably on the end of a Roman pike, and they're heading this way at a quick march.  If they get here and find no one's in charge, there'll be hell to pay.  So if you know what's good for you - and what's left of Britain - you'll marry me, so I can be king and when the Romans get here, I can pay them their tribute and we can get back to halfway normal."  So Guinevere does it, and then who comes over the hill, but Arthur himself.  Surprise, surprise, he licked the Romans after all.

At this point, since we're firmly in the region of legend anyway, I'll leave behind Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, which might be a little bit historical, and go with Mallory, who's not historical at all, but way cooler.  According to Mallory then, Arthur and Mordred - neither of whom is very happy about the situation - decide to make the best of it.  Guinevere is packed off to a nunnery outside Lud's Town (London) and Mordred and Arthur work out a treaty whereby Mordred gets to rule a patch up near Lothian and Arthur gets everything else until Arthur's death, when Mordred gets the whole ball of wax.

So these two have a little table set up in a field near the Camlann River, and they don't trust each other further than they can spit, so they've each got their soldiers lined up behind them, armed to the teeth, but with strict instructions not to start any trouble.  Not, that is, unless the other side starts trouble.  Well, Arthur and Mordred sit down to put their names on the dotted line, and wouldn't you know, someone sees a snake.  He draws a sword to kill it, and it's on!  (In Monmouth's version, the site has the onomatopoetic name, "Camblam.")  Arthur and Mordred, who had the poor judgment to be sitting smack in the middle of the field, are the first to go, and after that, it's pretty much an Anglo-Saxon hootenanny in Britain.

Historians don't like that sort of stuff, because they don't like history turning on an unlucky coincidence or a misunderstanding.  They're all about economic forces and socio-cultural whatchamacallit.  But I believe history turns on a dime all the time - a guy sneaks into Russia on a rail car, there's a lucky spear throw, a rat in Asia Minor gets on a ship bound for Portugal - and everything turns out differently than it would have.

Partly because the Angles largely did to the Celts what Western Europeans later did to the American Indian, very few Latin words from the Roman occupation were transmitted into English, most of them had to do with naming things of strategic interest to Romans, like port (porta) mountain (mons) and tower (turris).

Next, we'll look at the Anglo-Saxons, which is when English proper really begins.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Two, The Romans

The red stuff is what the Romans ended up owning, and they gray
is the parts they never got around to.  Notice that the British Isles
fall almost exactly on the dividing line between the red and gray.
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

If you lived in ancient Europe, sooner or later, you were probably going to have to deal with some Romans.  Rome was a city that ended up conquering the world.  Well, not the whole world, but a pretty durn sizable chunk of it.  They never penetrated very far north, and left the Germanic languages pretty much untouched, but they were all over the Mediterranean, leaving big old linguistic footprints everywhere they went.  Their leave-behinds are called the Romance Languages because of their origin in Ancient Rome.  

Ask a German and he'll tell you some moonshine about how the Romans never conquered them because they were too tough, fearless, or whatever.  And in truth, Rome did suffer at least one humiliating defeat in a place called the Teutoburger Wald.  But you don't have to study the map very long to figure out the main reason: the Romans liked to stick close to the shore, especially if it had a nice warm-water port.  The further you went inland, the more the Romans lost interest.  The old saying, "All roads lead to Rome," maybe should've been, "all boats lead to Rome."  Sea traffic was a big deal and mucho profitable.  It's not for nothing that Caesar got a leg up on his rise to power dealing with sea piracy, or that the battle that put the final nail in the Second Triumvirate was naval, at Actium.  The fact that Rome never made deep incursions into Northern Europe had big ramifications for Rome and well as the English language, as we'll see, but right now, let's just talk about Romans.

The first Roman to hit Britain was Julius Caesar himself.  He'd just finished painting Gaul's wagon, and he sailed across the channel, to take a look-see if there was anything worth conquering.  Once he got there, though, he was like, "Meh," and contented himself with shaking down the locals for tribute money.  The next emperor to take a crack at it, was Caligula.  He stationed his legions on the shore of Normandy and had them attack the water with their swords.  This strategy, though novel, did little to conquer anybody.  Afterwards, his men collected seashells.  Claudius made another go at it, and this time he wasn't fooling around.  He got together 20,000 men and sailed across the channel instead of just whooping up on the sea on their side.  Rome never conquered all the British isles.  What later became Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, were left largely untouched.  Again, the stuff the Romans didn't trample down sufficiently would play a big role later on.  They threw up some walls here and there to keep out the riff-raff, but the body of what later became England, they Romanized.

Like the Celts, the Romans of this era handed only a few words down to us.  Mostly place names, Dorchester, Chichester, Gloucester, Leicester and so forth.  The -cester or -chester suffix, comes from the Latin for "fort," and you'll find most of these places at nice strategic locations, like navigable bodies of water, promontories, and so forth.  Of course, Gloucester is pronounced "Glowster," Leicester, "Lester," and Dorchester, "Dorset."  Long, polysyllabic words are like grapes.  Leave them unattended for too long, and they shrivel up like Raisins.  The last name Featheringstonehaugh is pronounced "fanshaw."  This process of shortening will probably only be exacerbated by texting.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why English is a Mess: Part One, The Celts

The Lindow Man was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat cut.
Subsequently his corpse was thrown into a peat bog.
Evidently a man of high-standing in the community. (Photograph by Mike Peel.)
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

So a long time ago, Britain was occupied by the Celts.  Who were the Celts?  Well, for one thing, they were very different from the Celtics.  The Celts did not play basketball.  With a few exceptions like brogue, hubbub, and smidgen, the Celts didn't leave behind too many words you'd recognize.  Cwm is a useful word to know, if you're playing Scrabble.  At one time there were Celts pretty much all over Western Europe, you could hardly throw a spear without hitting a Celt.  The Romans discovered this, which is one of the reasons there aren't so many Celts around today.  A lot of what we know about Celts we get from Greek and Roman historians, all of whom thought the Celts were crazy.  This poses a problem because, as we now know, Greek and Roman historians were crazy.  Aristotle and that crowd claimed the Celts were head-hunters, that they went into battle naked, and that they were led by women.  Some Roman historians wrote that all Celtic men were gay, and others that all Celtic women were wildly promiscuous.  Everyone agreed the Celts fought like animals.  All of this, of course, is probably exaggerated and based on crude stereotypes.  One or two gay, naked, head-hunting soldiers who take orders from a promiscuous woman and fight like animals, and the whole bunch gets a reputation.  Whatever else we know about the Celts, it's certain they practiced human sacrifice.  Oft times the priests would throw their victims into peat bogs, where, because of acidity, low temperature, and lack of oxygen, the bodies were effectively mummified, with their skin and internal organs intact after thousands of years.   An especially well-preserved body, the Tollund Man, was found in Denmark and was in such good shape, it was at first believed to be a recent murder victim.  (The corpse is over two thousand years old.)  Whether this is a testament to the preservative powers of peat bogs or the slipshod work of the local police, I will not comment.  A bog body from the British Isles, the Lindow man was strangled, hit on the head, and had his throat cut.  Archaeologists conclude he was someone of very high status.  Again, I will not comment.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I'm Having Difficulty with My New Novel about the Meaninglessness of Life

I can't tell you how hard it is to write depressing stuff
when you have chickens.
I'm drafting a new novel (Working title: Forlorn!) a mordant, biting, and deeply cynical commentary on the shallowness, hypocrisy, and emptiness of life.  It is extraordinarily depressing, you can barely get through the first paragraph without wanting to shoot yourself.  I predict it will sell a million copies.

The only problem is, I have chickens.  I cannot tell you how hard it is to look unblinkingly into the dark sucking vortex of oblivion and chaos that lies unspoken and unacknowledged at the center of existence as we go about the pathetic charade we call our lives when you have chickens.  There's something about chickens that just makes you smile.  You let them out of their pen in the morning, and they just go head-bobbing across the yard, all full of chickenish joie de vivre.  As if that weren't bad enough, they lay eggs.  It really makes it hard to summon up despair when there's fresh eggs every day.

For despair is the very theme of my novel.  "Life is meaningless and absurd," it tells the reader on every page, "and we must learn to live without hope."  Great stuff, huh?  But it's hard to keep focused on that when the tomatoes are coming in.  And we have a great crop of tomatoes this year.  This is a real hindrance to someone who wants to tell the dark unspeakable truths.  I mean, every time I just get in the swing of saying how useless it all is, and what a darkly laughable joke is our pretense of happiness, there's more ripe tomatoes.

My main character, Bertholt, you'd love him, is the perfect emblem of all the sickness and rot deep in the core of humanity.  He is both alienating and alienated.  You would feel sorry for him, except he's so despicable you can't help loathing him.  He's sure to fill you with self-hatred.  Terrific, huh?  Makes you want to go right out and buy it.  The message is, humanity sucks, and we're lower than the lowest worm.  But then, just as I'm really getting down to the nitty-gritty of the futility, cruelty, and deep horror of existence, Nancy goes and makes me a plate of cheese eggs and bacon.

I may never get this book written.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Things that I Enjoy Even More

Now that I'm 39, there are many things I don't enjoy as much as I used to.  For example, smoke bombs.  Man, I used to think there was no thrill greater than a good smoke bomb, and if I could just get my hands on a dozen or so of those rascals, my life would be perfect.  Another thing was GI Joes.  This was back when GI Joe was full-size, and there were some of them that had beards.  And they had jeeps.  God, they were so cool.  They all had that scar on the side of their face.  And their hands were shaped that weird way - like one was for holding a sandwich and the other for picking a booger, I don't know what was up with that - but I used to love GI Joes.  And toy trucks.  And playing in a dirt pile.  Give me a toy truck and point me to a dirt pile and I could ask nothing more.

But I don't get into those things like I used to.  In fact, if you showed me a GI Joe in a Tonka Truck on a dirt pile with a smoke bomb going off, I'd be like, "meh."  I used to dream about that.

So what do I enjoy now?  Lots of things.  For example, naps.  I love me some naps.  And to think I used to hate naps; I'd do anything to avoid taking one.  If I fell asleep in the middle of the day, it was like I was being cheated out of something.  Now it's like a reward.  Another thing I like that I used to hate was getting to bed at a reasonable hour.  By "reasonable" I mean 8:45 or 9:00.  I used to love staying up to midnight or later.  What was I thinking?  Midnight is for suckers, I'm thinking of putting that on a bumper sticker.  I also dig it when my knees don't hurt.  When I was a kid, my knees never hurt, but I didn't appreciate it the way I do now.  Now when my knees don't hurt, it's like, my knees don't hurt - fabulous!

So that's the way it is.  When we're young we like some things, and when we're old    middle aged    mature  more experienced, we like other things.  I used to like toy trucks and dirt piles, now I like naps and when my knees don't hurt.

I can hardly wait to see what I'll like next.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Progress on the Education Front

Representative Williams wanted it specified that God
had created right triangles and ordained their lengths.
House Bill 314159, Resolved that in a right triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides.

Representative Chu (D. California) argued that the inequality of the square of one side of a triangle being equal to the two remaining sides put together was manifestly unacceptable, and the bill should be amended to create a more equitable distribution of lengths.  Representative Johnson (R. Texas) berated Chu for "geometric socialism" and said that if the hypotenuse was that much longer than the two adjacent sides it was because of hard work and frugality and was proof of the success of western capitalism, and that if the other two sides wanted to make something of themselves, they should follow the hypotenuse's example instead of just sitting around on their angles and whining about it.   Representative Franks (R. Arizona) said this was all well and good, but that his understanding was Pythagoras was a Mexican or else possibly Armenian and that America had to stop letting foreigner geometers take jobs away from Native-Born American geometers who needed work.  Representative Chabot (R. Ohio) retorted that if the House kept throwing around lengths like there was no tomorrow, it spelled the end for America, and that every time we decided a side of a triangle should be longer, we had to borrow the extra inches from China, and when they decided to call in the chips, there wouldn't be any triangles left at all.  Representative Edwards (D. Maryland) said the loss of triangles would impact the poor most, and that the wealthiest 1% of Americans would still have plenty of triangles available.  Representative Ellison (D. Minnesota) said the deeper problem lay in the fact that the lengths were set arbitrarily by a powerful elite with vested interest in the status quo, and that if the two adjacent sides were allowed to bargain collectively, there would be maybe some social justice for a change.  Representative Williams (R. Texas) said everyone was losing sight of the main issue of the resolution, which was that it failed to mention that God had created right triangles and ordained their lengths at the Beginning of Time, approximately 5,000 years ago.

The House was then adjourned so representatives could meet their lobbyists for lunch.