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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.

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