Lots of books about English.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 13 2008 7:32 AM

A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite?

How best to talk about English in English.

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English by Henry Hitchings.

In the first nine pages of Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, words can see. (They are "witnesses.") They are containers (with fossils in them). Language is a combination of earth and artifact. (It allows us to do archeology.) It is both abstract and communal. (It is a "social energy.") English is an object of trade. (It was "imported.") It is an animal. (It has a "pedigree.") It is a human professional. (It has a "career.") It is a space ("a place of strange meetings"). English vocabulary is a building (it has architecture), and English has sex, lots of it—it's not just "promiscuous"; it's a "whore."

Hitchings is an excellent writer, and if the list looks excessive when pulled from the page, it's only because English is a dizzying and manifold thing. In this year's many other books about the language, including John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue, and David Crystal's By Hook or by Crook, English is variously described as weird, kinky, oceanic, or a supernova. In Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabet Juice and Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, its immensity is discussed with some degree of rapture. Overall, English is portrayed as either language triumphant or the scrappy linguistic underdog who came out on top.

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Of course, you can't talk about 1,500 years of codified sound waves without using some kind of analogy, but is it helpful to call English a mallard or a dolphin or a lonely transvestite? What's the best way to talk about English in English?

There's a lot to be said for the geographical analogies commonly invoked to describe any language—map, artifact, fossil. Perhaps more than any other tongue, English has been decisively shaped by the series of intense geopolitical events that mark its short but vivid history. In its first 600 years, English was the language of the invaded; later, it became a language of invasion. English began in 449 when marauding Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Frisians sailed from their homeland (now Denmark, northern Germany, southern Norway, and Sweden) to invade a small island in the North Sea. The tribes settled there, replacing the land's Celtic languages with their own. The word English itself comes from Anglisc, the dialect of the Angles.

Twice more, English was profoundly shaped by bloody incursions. At the end of the eighth century, one horrible raid kicked off years of violent Viking assaults, followed by a less bloody period of Norse influence when a Danish king also became king of England. Later, in 1066, Norman invaders trounced the locals in a single grim battle. Both Vikings and Normans (who spoke French but were originally Scandinavian), left a lasting mark on the language. In addition to about 2,000 words we still use today, including the pronouns they and their, contact with the Vikings also pushed English away from its syntactic roots. Suffixes that indicated who did what to whom began to be dropped in favor of set word order.

The Norman rule also brought many linguistic changes, introducing words like fortress, conflict, siege, assault, armor, and war, as well as the rather practical idea of a surname. Of course, Latin had a huge impact on English, too, both via French and directly. Many Latin words to do with scholarship and religion have entered English over hundreds of years, but even in the earliest days of the language, the founding tribes brought about 300 Latin loans with them to England, mostly day-to-day words that became street, wall, cheese, and wine, for instance. The layering of loans into English means it now often has three terms for the one thing. Hitchings explains that the Anglo-Saxon term is often neutral or vernacular, the French term is considered sophisticated, and the Latin or Greek term may connote a more clinical or scientific view. Compare fire, flame, conflagration; go, depart, exit; dead, deceased, defunct.

Biological analogies may be even better than geographical ones—and it's no wonder the metaphors move swiftly from animal to promiscuous beast. English may be the most hybrid language in the world, having absorbed genes from at least 350 other languages. While no language without loan words exists, fewer than one-quarter of English words today, says Hitchings, come from the founding Germanic tongue. English has at least 100 loans from languages like Urdu and Malay as well as rarer but widespread incursions like chimpanzee from Tshiluba, a West African language.