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:

Ancestors--Fore-elders

Caution--Forewit

Cemetery--Licherest

Commandment--Bodeword

Environs--Outskirts

Immaculate--Unwemmed

Incantation--Spell

Iniquity--Wrongwiseness

Liberty--Freedom

Miracle--Wondertoken

Obstructive--Hindersome

Republic--Commonwealth

Reprimand--Upbraid

Residence--Wonstead

Conclusion--Upshot

Conscience--Inwit

Desolation--Forwasting

Vicinity--Neighborhood

Asterisk--Starkin

Accumulate--Upheap, upgather

Attentive--Heedsome

Contradict--Gainsay

Culmination--Uptippening

Disseminate--Outscatter

Domestic--Housely

Enthusiasm--Faith-heat

Flexible--Bendsome

Adhere--Oncleave

Library--Book-hoard

Vocabulary--Word-hoard

Constellation--Starhoard

Invalid--Unhale

Mediator--Mid-friend

Mediocre--Middling

Obliged--Beholden

Spiral--Windling

Tacit--Wordless

Veracity--Soothfastness

Vibrate--Whiver

Custom--Wont

7 comments:

Milton T. Burton said...

It is the "mongrel" nature of English that makes it the rich, flexible language that it is.

John said...

That should be "bendsome language that it is" (according to Barnes.)

You are probably right, and the success of this mongrel English certainly speaks to its vitality. But Barnes sees richness in what was lost and left behind, and by temperament, I am inclined to agree with this sort of thing.

Le Panda du Mal said...

But some of these are still commonly used. And I'll be sure to start referring to my collection of books as a "book hoard".

Ps-Iosifson said...

I've often thought the incorporation of Latin, Greek and French words an interesting tiering of status and officialness. That is, generally speaking, the Latin, Greek and French words tend to take the higher status definitions - even when the Saxon is retained as a synonym. This greatly increased the vocabulary of English and allowed for shades and overlaps of meaning. Saxon words tended to take over home and hearth types of words, the everyday, the practical. In some sense, one can see this incorporation of Latin, Greek and French words as way of intimating status and formality via vocabulary rather than through grammatical forms or tenses, e.g., the Sie of German vs. the du.

John said...

Panda,

I was surprised to see the words still in use, as well. From this short list, alone, I often utilize the following:
Outskirts
Upshot
Neighborhood
Middling
Beholden
Wont

And some of the words look like they would be a lot of fun to reclaim, such as:
Licherest
Bodeword
Unwemmed
Wondertoken
Starkin
Upheap, upgather
Heedsome
Outscatter
Faith-heat
Book-hoard
Starhoard
Unhale
Whiver

John said...

Ps-losifson,
I think Barnes would definitely agree with the points you raise. He was very much a "home and hearth" type of man.

Milton T. Burton said...

I agree in spirit: I love ancient words that are still used occasionally today, but I like the additions too.