Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Uncommonly Common

I am a curious oyster. Anyone who knows me, knows this. Words are my obsession, as might be expected from a person who spends at least twelve hours a day with them. If I am not writing, I'm editing. If I'm not doing either of those, I'm reading. And if I'm doing none of those things, I'm either cooking, sleeping, or doing laundry.

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:
Ask
Question
Interrogate.

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?

~Terri

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!

21 comments:

SharonStruth said...

Great post, Terri. As a writer, your post does make me think a great deal about characterization and how the words I choose say a great deal about the character speaking. When we were in Sienna, Italy we spent a wonderful day with a guide who loved to tell use word meanings while we toured the tuscan cities, to the point where my fellow travelers were rolling their eyes. We entered a garlicky smelling restaurant and I half expected him to say I expected the guide to say, “Mmm, garlic. A word of Anglo-Saxon origin, being derived from gar (a spear) and lac, (a plant), in reference to the shape of its leaves.” He really was out of control, but it was memorable. I digress…sounds like this was a great course.

Terri-Lynne said...

Sharon, I'd have totally dorked out with this guy for the whole trip. How cool!

It is a great course. Let me know if you ever want to listen to it.

Debbie Christiana said...

I loved this post, Terri. I would love to borrow the CD from you sometime, I love word origins.

Funny how a lot of Americans think English is the go to language, many think it's pointless to learn another and expect the world to speak English. I wonder if they know of it's humble beginnings :)

Louise Turner said...

A fascinating post, Terri! While this is a subject which I do think about quite frequently, once again you moved beyond the standard cursory approach and brought fresh insights I would never of thought of, in particular with the tiered approach to the three languages. The idea of the 'low' foods versus 'high' foods is something we often consider - 'mutton', 'beef' etc. but the juxtaposition of the two different languages in the like of 'law and order' is a great insight! And I'd never really thought about its application in the written text, either. Thank you for that!!

Terri-Lynne said...


Thanks, Deb. You can borrow it whenever you want. I finished it, but for the last CD that was strangely blank. They're sending me a new one.

Learning about language truly gives me a deeper understanding about my own writing, other people's writing. The words chosen truly SPEAK of the author, whether or not the author has any clue.

The history of the English Language is truly a fascinating subject, because every single word tells a story, it's history. So freaking cool.

Terri-Lynne said...

Louise~Glad you liked it! And thank you. :)

The history of the English Language is like none other. Every word tells a story, speaks to a time period. The whole way we spell things fossilize what WAS. Everyone (I think) knows that KNIGHT was actually once pronounced exactly how it is spelled. Few know WHY the pronunciation changed, and fewer know when. But each letter tells the story, if one knows how to read it. So cool.

Terri-Lynne said...

ARGH! Its, not it's--and you know, that has a whole story too! Because, technically, its is a contraction if It + is, so following the rule of contraction would make it IT'S. But so is the possessive. So it got taken out for clarity, even if it breaks the rule, HOWEVER, it wasn't always its from inception. It switched back and forth.

Terri-Lynne said...

Aaaand, I totally mixed contraction in where it didn't belong. Sigh.
ARGH! Its, not it's--and you know, that has a whole story too! Technically, its is a POSSESIVE, and following the rule of POSSESSION would make it IT'S. But so is the CONTRACTION. So it got taken out for clarity, even if it breaks the rule, HOWEVER, it wasn't always its from inception. It switched back and forth.

And THAT is what I meant...I blame trying to eat and think and type at the same time. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Hey, I could have just deleted and pretended I hadn't screwed that up royally, right? :-P

Heroines of Fantasy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here. Terri, thanks for the reference! Yes! One of my favorite grad school classes was The History of the English Language. Absolutely loved it.

Terri-Lynne said...

Mark, you are my muse! :)

hmgoodchild said...

Interesting post. I remember discussing my wordchoices with you when we were polishing up 'After the Ruin'. It matters hugely which subsets of vocabulary one draws words from, because their nuances, in the right combination, add flavour to the text if one gets it right but make it totally indigestible if wrong. One can't always mix and match.

Terri-Lynne said...

You are absolutely right on that, Harriet. I remember. And, I have to say, that you were able to articulate it to me was, if not a first, one of the few! Most writers, good writers, make these choices without ever really realizing.

Deb Sturgess said...

Terri, I've totally geeked out, thanks to you. I've already looked up the migration patterns of Germanic tribes and the names of the original tribes that occupied Great Britain. The latter were unfamiliar to me, in spite of my fascination with the origins of English.

English didn't merely borrow words from the languages of its invaders, it absorbed them. English is the sponge of languages.

Terri-Lynne said...

Deb, amazing, huh? I used language to show migration route in A Time Never Lived to show how language spreads and grows but retains roots that get preserved. I can't get enough of this stuff.
Ever see this quote?
"English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and rummages through their pockets for loose grammar."

marybethbass said...

I love this post! "...a borrowing language" is a beautiful phrase.

Terri-Lynne said...

Mary Beth, she dedicated a good portion of one lecture explaining "borrowing." Really, it's not borrowing, it's taking. Borrow implies giving it back one day. Adopting implies it no longer belongs to the other language. But taking words just didn't seem right either. In the end, borrow worked best, so the powers that be let the technicalities slide. :)

marybethbass said...

I love the sense of action in the word borrowing. It makes me think of English as a somewhat gentle magpie.

Terri-Lynne said...

Oh, I like that MB!

Diana Munoz Stewart said...

What a great post, Terry-Lynne! I look forward to being in a car with you and listening to some great courses!

Terri-Lynne said...

Diana--Know what one I'm saving for the ride down? Storytelling!
http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=9313