Tuesday, April 15, 2014
One of my favorite avenues of learning is listening to college courses on CD in my car. I am currently listening to The Secret Life of Words, all about the English language and its origins. Fascinating stuff.
There is no pure English. It has been, from the very first utterances, a borrowing language. Germanic at the base--which in itself is a mish-mash of combining peoples--and full of French and Latin, the evolution is fascinating and far too involved to get into here.
I'm going to start with 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England. Suddenly, the royals were French--French who did not speak the native language. Many did, however, speak Latin, as the language of learning. So did some of the natives. Many of the doublets we still use to this day come from this time period, when you didn't know if the person you were adressing spoke French of English. Cease and desist. Law and order. Safe and sound. Peace and quiet. One French or Latin, one English, both mean the same.
The borrowing that began mostly with 1066 really kicked into gear when the Black Death reached England in 1348. Roughly one third of the population died, and suddenly, all those laypeople who spoke English got to fill in the spaces formerly denied them. What happened then was marvelous--the English started borrowing. Words for law, art, learning. They needed them. They borrowed from the scholarly Latin, and the elevated French. It is no coincidence that scientific and law terms tend to be Latinate, while those for the culinary arts are French.
Now look at this:
They don't mean quite the same thing, do they? Or do they? Ask is casual, question is slightly less so, and interrogate is comparatively severe--yet all have essentially the same meaning. What's the difference?
Ask is based in the Germanic/English and thus, common.
Question is from the French, slightly elevated from the common.
Interrogate is borrowed from Latin, most elevated as the language of scholars.
Fire, flame, incinerate. English, French, Latin.
Burn and combust--English, French
Broth and soup--English, French--and supper, which we get from the Latin, suppa, meaning the same.
Writers tend to grasp for the "low" speech of the common English for some things, and reach for the "high" speech from the French and Latin borrows for a more elevated feel, and most of us don't do so consciously. Let us take an old standby, Lord of the Rings. Mr. Tolkein (who most assuredly knew he was doing so) uses the "high speech" of Latinate word choices by and large, but look at how he uses the common vs. the elevated with his characters. There are no dialog tags necessary in Lothlorian, to tell the reader when Frodo speaks and when Giladriel does.
What made me really see this for myself was the word incendiary, a word Mark Nelson chose to use that always stuck out with me as I edited, The Poets of Pevana. Mark's writing has always said, "high speech" to me, and while listening to this course, I realized why--he often chooses "formal" Latinate or French borrows over the more basic English. He used the word incendiary brilliantly, to encompass fires set with words, and with flame. But he also peppered the text with that elevated speech, giving it that "high" feel.
It is one thing to make these choices subconsciously, and quite another to do so consciously. I will see books, and my writing, differently now. Will you?
This is my last post for a while, a prospect that leaves me feeling a bit bereft, I must say. Yet with my added responsibilities at Hadley Rille Books since Eric's stroke, I suppose I should welcome one less task on my list. Should being the key word here. Look for me in comments!