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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.

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