Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Some Books (6)--Early England and the Saxon-English by William Barnes (1869)
I have commented before on William Barnes and his work in preserving Anglo-Saxon lore and language, here. This 1869 volume presents a general overview of the Saxon English, their culture and society, with particular attention given to the Saxon tongue and its wearing-away in recent centuries. Barnes contends that after the Norman Conquest, the introduction of Latin, Greek and French words into the lexicon needlessly confused and corrupted the language, leaving it harder to understand and learn.
English has become a more mongrel speech by the needless inbringing of words from Latin, Greek, and French, instead of words which might have been found in its older form, or in the speech of landfolk over all England, or might have been formed from its own roots and stems....
It may be thought that Latin and Greek-English is more refined and lofty than pure Saxon-English; but refinement and loftythoughtedness must be in the thoughts, and it is idle to put words for wit.
An example of what he is talking about is seen in the connection between the Saxon terms "year" and "yearly," understandable to all levels of their society. But with the arrival of the Normans, new terminology such as "annual" was introduced. To the common Saxon English, this was not understable, as they had no knowledge of the Latin root of the word--annus. Barnes does not contend that there was anything wrong with these words, but rather that they were totally unneccessary when perfectly Saxon expressions were already in use.
He lists a number of these new "foreign" words alongside the Saxon words they replaced. A few are still in use, though most have been worn away with time. I find that there is a poetic naturalness to the Saxon words. In our coarse, vulgar age, incorporating a few here and there into our speech might not be a bad thing. Some examples, as follows: