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Friday, July 25, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Five, The Church

After Edwin of Northumbria converted to Christianity,
the monk finally stopped talking.
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.

Now for a brief commercial message from our Lord and Savior.  

All kidding aside, whatever effect Christianity had on England's souls, it made a huge mark on the language.  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New in Greek, and the liturgy was conducted in Latin, so for openers, we have streams from three very different languages trickling into English.

When Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine (not that St. Augustine, St. Augustine of Canterbury) to convert the Angles, he said, "I tell you they are not Angles but angels."  The pun wouldn't make sense if we hadn't picked up angel from the Greek, angelos, "messenger."  Pope Gregory had seen an Angle boy for sale in a slave market, and been taken by his blond hair and blue eyes.  Put simply, the Angles looked like freaks.  St Patrick had already converted the Irish about 100 years before, but the Irish were Celts, and the Anglo-Saxons were still pagan.  (Technically, they may have been not pagan, but heathen.  Pagan, from the Latin pagani, refers to any civilian who lives in the country, whereas heathen specifically refers to someone who lives in the heath.)

So in addition to words like angel and devil (Greek) we got crucifix (Latin, whence also, excruciating) and chapel (also Latin, from the "small cape" capella, St. Martin gave a beggar.)   Heathen is Old Norse, possibly a mis-translation of Hellene, ie a Greek woman metnioned by Matthew.  If so, the mistake was so apropos, we stuck by it.  Pagan sounds like someone who makes burnt offerings, but you just know a heathen goes around nekkid.

If translating Greek into English contained potholes, Hebrew contained landmines.  Scapegoat may be a mistaken reading of of Azazel, a fallen angel, as the verb azel, "to remove."  So there's a question whether the Bible talks about earmarking a goat as an offering to a supernatural being, or just "a goat that gets away," ie, an (e)scape-goat.  The problem is compounded because the ancient Hebrews took happy liberty with others' languages.  The Philistine God, Baalzebul, something like, "God Prince," the Hebrews renamed to mean "God of Bugs."  This was a big joke on the Philistines.  "Ha-ha, you know who you worship?  God of Bugs!  Yanner-nanner-nanner!"  Centuries later, the sarcastic context forgotten, Beelzebub assumed a chilling connotation as Lord of the Flies.

Some concepts were so important, we ended up with words for them in two or three languages.  Apocalypse (Greek) and Revelation (Latin) mean exactly the same thing - to uncover, or, if you prefer, to dis-cover.  The bread and wine may be referred to as the Eucharist (Greek, "good favor"), Communion (Latin, "joining together"), or the Lord's Supper (Anglo-Saxon and Old French, something like, "dinner with the boss.")  Gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon, "God-spell," indirectly translated from the Greek euangelizisthai, "Good News," hence, evangelist.  (Notice the root, angel, "messenger," in evangelist?)  Most of the books of the Bible come to us in Greek, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and the Epistles (Letters in Latin) - and the word Bible itself (book), is Latin, by way of Greek, by way - possibly - of Egyptian, where it might have referred to a small papyrus scroll.

Testament, as in New and Old, is good, sturdy Latin, from testificari, "to bear witness," from testis, "to witness," also meaning "testicle."  Apparently the story that Romans once took oaths by swearing on their testicles is untrue, which is kind of a disappointment.  It's the sort of thing you'd expect from a bunch of heathens.

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