I'd like you to cast your mind back a long way – a very long way. Picture the scene: we're in an area round about what we now call the south coast of England. There are a group of hunter gatherers wandering about... That's the name we give to early humans – when I say "early" I don't mean they were first in the queue or had got up at the crack of dawn to get the bargains at the local department store, oh no I am referring to very primitive individuals.
They were. talking to each other, well sort of making grunting noises, probably about the weather and off they trotted over to what we now call France. Do I discern a slight look of doubt in your expression? I expect you're wondering how they could just "trot off". What about the channel? I hear you cry. Well I did say you had to cast your mind a very long way back in time. Remember at that time what is now Britain was joined to what is now called France and in those days you could just saunter across from one to the other on foot, minding the odd puddle of course. Then you know how it is, it rained a lot, there was the odd earthquake and before you could say: Where's my umbrella? there was this channel. Personally I wish it hadn't happened being someone who doesn't like flying but there it is.
We now fast forward to the days of the Roman Empire. As far as the Romans were concerned, we were a bunch of Barbarians running around covered in homemade paint called woad with which we daubed (put paint on) ourselves. The language if that's the right word for it, sounded to our Roman invaders like people saying "bar- bar- bar" and that's how they coined the word "barbarians" to describe us. The Emperor Julius Caesar started to get itchy feet (he wanted to travel) and he'd heard about these islands off the coast of France. He gathered together the best sailors he could find and set sail for Britain. Of course he didn't have a GPS (global positioning system) with him and he got hopelessly lost ending up on a small island off the coast of North Wales, which he christened Mona. Rather a good name as it turned out because it rains a lot there still and it was coming down in buckets when our Julius and his men arrived. You see to me the name sounds a bit like "moaner" – someone who's always complaining. Anyhow they soon cleared off (left) and raced back to Rome looking for the sun. Caesar tried again a few years later. The barbarians with the paint running down their faces in the rain were a walkover (easily defeated) and thus began the Roman occupation of Britain and the beginning of civilisation. Nice straight roads were built, towns were created and elementary forms of government were established and all in all Britain became very well organised. Latin of course became the language to use if you wanted to be anybody (important person). It left its mark on the language we now call English. Apart from the obvious expressions that crop up in ordinary conversation like "ad infinitum" (endlessly) or ad nauseam (sort of so much "ad infinitum" that it makes you sick) there is a whole host of words that have roots in Latin: "compact", "complete", "implement", "mediator", "pauper", "prosecutor" and so on or just to show off a bit – "et cetera" (etc). That's the thing about English, it's a bit of a hoarder. Whereas other languages reject the bits and pieces of other languages, like the crumbs and remnants left on the floor after the feast, English says: "Hang on, I'll have that, you never know, it might come in useful." The Anglo Saxons indulged in a bit of invading, too and mixed their ingredients into the stew that was to become English. But all this was a "walk in the park" (something very unimportant) in comparison with what happened in 1066.
Now without going into too much detail as that would take up a complete newsletter in itself, it was in that year that the Battle of Hastings took place when William, Duke of Normandy (France) invaded England, killed King Harold and took control of the country. For the next 200 years English "took a back seat" (was in second place) and the official language became French. This is the reason, dear learner of English, why when you look up a word in your dictionary to find an English equivalent, you will invariably be presented with at least two – one with an English origin and one with a French. In those 200 years the English were the underdogs. They did the cooking and looked after the animals in the farms – the cows, the sheep and the pigs. The French did the eating – beef, mutton and pork. In everyday language we have the same pairs with the "French" word first: close – shut, reply – answer, annual – yearly, desire - wish, commence - begin.
Just imagine what would have happened if the English language had lost the battle with the French language - "Mai foi! Quelle horreur! Sacre bleu! Ce ne'st pas possible!" Or as we descendants of those hunter gatherers from way back would say in our calm, relaxed manner: "Oh dear!"
I'm sure you enjoyed Alan's essay on the history of the English language because I believe he has a great talent to deliver information in easily digestible pieces always spiced with the right portion of British humour. Speaking of which I'd like to remind you of our forum. I hope you know what a forum is? If not, it's high time you started using this handy tool. We really would like to know what you think of Alan's newsletter and that's why you should click on the link below to post your comments:
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