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Monday, July 28, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Seven-B, The French, The Freaking French

William the Conqueror begins introducing words to English
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 in the last episode, William the Bastard became William the Conqueror and comes over to be king of England.  Even then, he might not have had that much impact on the language if the English lords had been able to get with the program and just deal with it, but oh, no, they had to go and make a fuss.  And every time one of the Anglo-Saxon lords made a fuss, naturally, W the C had to have him rubbed out, and then he'd bring over a Frenchman to replace him, and then another lord would make a fuss about that, and he'd get rubbed out and a Frenchman would replace him.  And this went on until just about everybody who was anybody was French.

The next sentence is so peculiar, I'm going to write it twice.


For hundreds of years, the official language in England was French.


For hundreds of years, the official language in England was French.


Everything that went on at the royal court - including the words "royal" and "court" - was conducted in French.  Most of the hoity-toity set didn't even know English.  The upshot was that if you were an Anglo-Saxon during this period, assuming you weren't rubbed out, you learned you some French as fast as you could learn it.  When English re-emerged after this hundreds' years dousing with French, it was entirely transformed.  For comparison's sake, here's the opening lines of Beowulf again, which as you will recall, are written in Old English, before the Norman Conquest:


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


What the freak, right?  I mean, what the freakin' freak?


But now, here's the opening from Canterbury Tales:


Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote the droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour, of which vertu engendred is the flour...


I mean, that's much better, right?  It's still goofy as heck, but you can hope to pick out a word here and there.  In fact, after you study it for a while, you can actually read it.  It's just the spelling really.  It looks like it was typed by someone wearing oven mitts, or who'd gotten his hands on too much of that switch liquor, whatever that is.  What's even more amazing is that Canterbury Tales was written only about 300 years after the Norman Conquest.  English had changed that much.


In addition to making English more like English, the Normans introduced French as a prestige vocabulary.  If you were going to plead your case to the local magistrate, you better not drag any of your dirty, vulgar Anglo-Saxon in there, but be sure to use your dainty, polite Norman French.  If someone's trying to impress you, he won't say, "Go to the boss and get the work papers to fill out" (Anglo-Saxon) but "Proceed to the administrator and obtain the employment documentation for completion" (Norman French).  Both sentences mean exactly the same thing, but French-derived vocabulary has a strong snob appeal for English speakers.


This applies to other fields as well.  We like to use Greek or Latin words for our scientific vocabulary.  If you go to your doctor - a good Latinate word from the root "to teach" - and say a perfectly sensible Anglo-Saxon sentence like, "My fingers is swole!" he'll diagnose - (from the Greek, "to know") it as "digititis," and you'll think, "Now, I'm getting somewhere," except what he said means exactly the same thing as my fingers is swole.


This even goes as far as the dinner table.  I would be appalled (Norman French, "to turn white") if my darling wife told me we were having sliced pig for supper.  Instead of the Anglo-Saxon word, she uses the more appetizing pork which comes from French.  A cow is the animal in the field: chewing cud and pooping, but she changes her name from Anglo-Saxon to the Norman French beef when she's on the table.  Chicken still gets to be chicken whether it's in a pen or a red-and-white bucket, but sometimes goes by the Norman-French equivalent, poultry.  For some reason fish is fish and only fish whether it's in the water or breaded and fried.  Maybe the French poisson, "fish," looks too much like poison to be very appetizing.


Norman French is also why we have so many dirty words.  Or rather, it's why the dirty words in English are so much dirtier than the dirty words in other languages.  Merde in French, is no more than a mild oath.  I knew a Panamanian grandmother who called her grandchildren - affectionately - mierditas.  Our Anglo-Saxon equivalents - the vulgar connotation of the language combined with the thing itself makes some words dang near unprintable.


Consider; I can say feces, excrement, and elimination - all Norman French.  But I would blush to write a simple synonym that starts with s and rhymes with "pit."  The s-word is Anglo-Saxon, therefore dirty.  But would you stepped in something you thought was an Old English turd, would you really feel better to know it was Norman French excrement?


Fornicate, copulate, coitus, and sexual intercourse are all Norman French and all mean the same as the f-word, which is Anglo-Saxon, and therefore too naughty for this blog.  (Roy Blount, Jr. also points out that the f- word happens to have a very ugly sound, like a boot being pulled out of mud.)


"Pardon my French," is kind of a joke because the person never says it after using Norman French, but Anglo-Saxon.

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