Lean, Unlovely English


One of the best things that ever happened to the English-speaking peoples was when a rapacious army of Scandinavian-derived Frenchmen conquered the right little tight little island about a thousand years ago, shot the king of England in the eye, and more or less banned the native tongue for a hundred years or so. Spoken English was limited to common people, written English ceased to exist for a while, and when the language came back into official usage it was a French/English hybrid that was a vastly richer, more powerful, and easier to use language (among other things, it no longer had three genders and declined nouns) that has resisted all attempts by grammarians to put it back in a box.

You can tell a person is ignorant when he or she complains that the works of Chaucer are too hard to read because they're in "Old English." Chaucer wrote in Middle English, the same basic language we use, which you can get the hang of with a few hours of application and a good dictionary. Old English was a different language, closer to Old German than to what we speak, and its literature consisted of haunting but crude verses about killing people.

As if to prove that point, a new and apparently complete dictionary of Old English is now available. Because the project was funded with $1.8 million in U.S. taxpayer money, it is the subject of an article by the lexicographical adventurer Ammon Shea in the National Endowment for the Humanities' house magazine. Shea makes a compelling case for the strengths of Old English:

Much has been said about how our modern English language has drawn its highbrow vocabulary, the words to describe fancy or fanciful things, from the snooty French conquerors. Likewise, the base and basic elements of our language have come from Old English, which supplied the everyday words. To my mind, we may add to these everyday words many of those that are larcenous and violent (although violent and everyday may well have been one and the same), with specimens such as cyricbryce (the act of breaking into a church) and what seems to me to be a delightful superfluity of words for breaking bones, bruising, assaulting, warring against, and otherwise doing grievous harm.

Browsing through a small section of the alphabet, I happened across gederednes, derian, gederian, gederod, deriendlic, deriendnes, derung, gedeþed, and gedigan, all of which are words that have to do with injuring, harming, or killing (with the exception of the last word, which means 'to survive'). But lest you come away with the idea that the speakers of this language were linguistically brutish, I would draw your attention to a word that appears shortly after all of these bruising terms: digollice.

Digollice is one of those words of which any language should be proud. It is elegant yet robust, clear yet multi-faceted—a description that perhaps sounds like that of an overpriced wine, but which is apt nonetheless. Among the meanings of this single word are the following: in a manner intended to avoid public attention, stealthily or furtively, in a manner that is unnoticed, with a lack of ostentation, in hiding, secluded in monastic life, spoken in a low or soft voice, spoken with circumspection or restraint, whispering slander, relating to secret thoughts of inward affliction, obscure or requiring interpretation, and a handful of others that I'll let you find on your own.

If you are at all interested in where your language came from—and you should be—this new research is worth a look. (After all, you helped pay for it, even though the dictionary is published by a Canadian university.) For a great piece of Saxon nostalgia, try the one-page story "The Witness" by Jorge Luis Borges—one of the 20th century's greatest appreciators of English.

But the truth is that it's post-Norman English that contains the delightful superfluity. You can see it in popular pairings like "wrack and ruin" and "lewd and lascivious," in which a Saxon word (almost always a monosyllable) is paired with a Latinate word (usually a polysyllable), and both words have the same meaning. There's no need for formations like this: They're flourishes, braggadocio by a language that is better off for having been conquered and destroyed.

Courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily.