Friday, October 26, 2012

Mother Tongue

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which chronicles the evolution of English over 1,500 years—from primitive, runic Anglo-Saxon to the global language it has now become. Bryson is always funny and amusing, and this book is chock-full of entertaining factoids. I’m only about one third of the way through it, but I thought I’d share a few choice tidbits with you:

The larynx of Homo sapiens sapiens (aka Cro-Magnon man) was positioned farther down the throat than in any previous hominid, which made well-articulated speech possible for the first time. This physiological change, however—which meant that food and drink must pass over the larynx on the way down the throat—also resulted in us being the only mammal capable of choking. (Curiously, modern humans are not born with the larynx in this lowered position; rather, it descends between the age of 3 and 5 months.)

It is thought by linguists that the Basque language (Euskara) may be the last surviving remnant of the Neolithic languages spoken in Stone Age Europe, which were later displaced by Indo-European tongues.

 cyclist from the Basque team Euskaltel

English underwent countless changes between the time of Chaucer and the present day, many of which I find particularly intriguing. For instance, certain words beginning with the letter n eventually lost their first letter to the preceding indefinite article: e.g., a napron became an apron; a nauger became an auger; and an ekename became a nickname. Similarly, it is thought that Ned came from “mine Edward,” and Nan from “mine Ann.”

Some of our singular nouns were the result of what is known as “back-formation.” Thus, “pease” (as in the nursery rhyme “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold”) was mistakenly thought to be a plural, resulting in the (incorrect) singular “pea.” And the French for cherry, cerise (pronounced suh-rease) was also thought to be plural, resulting in the singular “cherry.”

pease porridge in the pot, nine days old
(with my dad and little sister)
photo: Smiley Karst

Meanings of many words have changed over the centuries, making some modern expressions seem illogical. For example, “to prove” once meant “to test” (as it still does in “proving ground”), thus explaining the expressions “the exception proves the rule,” and “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

And then there’s Shakespeare (or the Earl of Oxford, if you please), who Bryson informs us used 17,677 words in his writings, of which at least one tenth had never been used before. In other words, he coined one in ten of the words employed in his works. Wow. Among them are: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pedant, cranny, beautified, homicide, aggravate, forefathers.

 the new Globe Theatre in London

This was an era, mind you, when the vocabulary of the English language was expanding by leaps and bounds. Between the years 1500 and 1650 some 10,000 to 12,000 new English words were coined. From Ben Jonson we acquired damp, defunct, clumsy, and strenuous, and from Sir Thomas More we got absurdity, acceptance, exact, explain and exaggerate.

So, what new words have you invented recently?


  1. Indeed! Can't remember who I first heard that from--I know it was from one of us: you, my sis, Robin, or me.