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The Scrivener: The Bane Of Our Language

“Newspapers and TV news bulletins bring us stories of fighting, war and slaughter every day. And they are often far too close for comfort. But if we go back 1,000 or 1,500 years, we can see that things haven’t changed much. In terms of the English language, it was all happening at home.’’ writes Brian Barratt, a man with a thirst and an enthusiasm for words.

I’ve been reading sections of The Saxon Chronicle, the first written history of Britain, and other records and sagas written between 800 and 1,300 years ago. The English language was born and continued its growth in a period when invasion, war, killing and mutilation were regular events.

In the context of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘boat people’, consider the early history of Britain and hence the growth of the English language:

- Celts of various tribes and languages from central Europe invaded and quelled the previous inhabitants, whoever they were. (Palaeontologists believe that various types of humans had been in Britain for about 300,000 years. Homo sapiens were well established by at least 30,000 years ago.) Language at that stage was probably not much more than varied grunts which slowly became words.

- Around 2,000 years ago the Romans invaded, conquered and ruled for several centuries, bringing the old Latin language to their new province of Britannia.

- Internal wars started when the Romans packed their bags and went home, having had a strong cultural influence on the people, their society, and their language.

- Angles, Saxons and Jutes, some of whom were invited to help, set up rival kingdoms and battles recommenced. They brought their Germanic languages with them.

- Vikings invaded, ravaged, plundered and slaughtered in a big way. They, too, brought a new language, which we know as Old Norse. The present day language of Iceland is a direct descendant, still using many of the same words.

- Normans invaded, dominated, and changed everything. A version of the French language had a very strong influence, completely changing the fledgeling English language.

Now, just to cheer you up, here are some of the words which have survived from the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) of 1,000 to 1,500 years ago:

kill, quell, quail all come from cwealm, meaning death, murder, slaughter.

bane, something that causes misery and even death, comes from bona, bana, meaning killer, slayer.

death has not changed, but originally had an old letter for ‘th’, deað.

fight is another one that has hardly changed from Anglo-Saxon feoht, feohtan.
gruesome is related to the old word gyre, meaning horror, terror.

murder and mortal both originated in morðres, the killing.

slay, slaughter and even sledgehammer come from slean, to strike, to slaughter, and ofsloh, slaying.

wreak, wreck and also wretch are all related to wræce, wracu, revenge, punishment.

And how about a few of the words that came with, or followed, the Norman invaders of 1066?

attack, battle, command, demand, dispute, dread, fear, massacre, menace, raid, savage, siege, skirmish, strike, war.

It’s a bit depressing, isn’t it? On the other hand, how would our TV and newspaper reporters manage without this blood-drenched background of the language they, and we, use?
The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2004, 2007, 2011

My thanks to LJO of Napier University, Edinburgh, for stimulating the lateral research of which the above is a brief summary.


For more of Brian’s magically entertaining words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/
And do visit his thought provoking Web site


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