Wednesday, July 31, 2013


A Shortish History of the English Language

In the Beginning was the Word
Spoken all over the island world:

Short if not sweet, semantically meet,
It rolled from tongues both grave and glib
In rudiments as fast as fibs.

Uttered by girls and muttered by boys,
Declaimed by queens, proclaimed by kings,
That all the people might rejoice
And celebrate the rites of spring.

Sung by the slave and flung by the freeman
Like coins into Poverty’s outstretched hands;
Spoke sparingly by solitary huntsmen,
And shared by farmers gathered in bands
To sow and reap the greenest of lands;
Hummed by children weaving garlands,
And women weaving motley strands.

Bandied about in families,
Declared in councils tribal,
Tolerant of anomalies –
Infrequent in records scribal –
Whispered in peace, shouted in war,
Exchanged in friendship, preserved in lore,
Chanted by Saxons and chattered by Jutes
To banging of drums, twanging of lutes.

Rumored by travelers to the northernmost isles
To be wanting in sense, jabbered, defiled;
Slandered as nonsense by Singers of Tales
Who heard naught but gibberish in distant Wales;
Compared to quacking by nine worthy bowmen
Who journeyed as far as deep blue Loch Lomond.

Poorly defended in a land of stolid yeomen,
The Word was besieged by armies Roman:
Armies that bivouacked throughout the region,
Making a home for their Latin legions.
The Romans stayed for centuries indeed,
Ruling the tribes and planting their seed.

Time passed.
The Romans decamped.

While Celtic clamored in the Scottish Highlands
Latin echoed dully throughout the British Islands;
Rebounding with a vengeance in Century Six,
Roman liturgy refined the prattle of the Picts.
From the Church set upon Albion’s emerald expanse
Latin issued forth, the Wordsmith’s main chance
To forge a new diction of dialect and soul’s conviction. 

Latin gave us words like priest, paper, school:
Nouns enshrining the exception, defining the rule.
In all, the Church generously loaned
Over four hundred words from Latin alone.
As for Greek, the Church was rather mean:
For ever since the schism, the Greek lexicon
Like a noiseless, shimmering eidolon,
Had departed with the Hellenes.

Dispersed now, the tribes, the Angles and Jutes,
Preserved time-honored tales tragic and cute;
But even there, in the bastion of tradition,
Singers of Tales vaunted their erudition:
And their lines and their verses got a little longer,
And modern trends showed a little stronger,
For the sons of the Saxons and daughters of the Jutes
Spoke a lingo incorporating Greek and Latin roots.

Hymns and canticles added dash:
Clearly the Church had made a big splash;
In its wake a bold newfangled Word
Traveled length and breadth of the island world.

Replete with syllables, its syntax amended,
Anglo-Saxon-speak had been upended.
Its ancient simplicity, barely detectable,
Descended to complicity –
With usages collectable:
Over two thousand borrowings from Old Norse–

(Three-letter words for a short brutish life:
Bag, hit, law, leg, sky-–
And the four-letter words with which Old Norse was rife:
Same, skill, take, they – )

Formed the ancient core of course.

Beholden to the Romans and the Vikings,
Old English now appeared in writing.

Come 1066, a language dormant
Was rudely awakened by an invasion of Normans.
Before the turn of the millennium
King Alfred had burnt his cakes.
Not exactly the King of Cool,
Alfred showed that the Brits needed help to rule.
So, in any case, thought the French
When they crossed the channel and had Harold benched –
By William Conqueror, England’s new king:
French wine and cuisine did he duly bring –
If only to fête a cosseted nobility
Known for their adaptability.

All England submitted to the Frenchman’s reign –
To a king who brought culture to his wild domain.
Francophone manners he brought from a far shore,
Enhancing Old English with cognates galore.
Whilst William enforced his reign with a loyal constabulary,
The Word conquered new territory: French vocabulary.

After 1200, with the decline of Anglo-Norman,
For English Writ there dawned a bright new morning;
English appeared in documents secular and reverent,
And was heard in Edward III’s address to Parliament.

My how the Word had grown!
Improved its diction,
Come into its own,
Placed fact before fiction;
Gotten a formal education
In government and legislation;
Prepared to meet the next legation
With Latin prefixes superimposed
On unsuspecting roots of old.

Its essence captured in script Arabic
The newfangled word went multisyllabic,
Accruing all manner of titrated part-words
For dosing pallid nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs;
Thriving, arrived on time, without sequelae,
The Word was reborn
As fluent, as readable, as beautifully formed,
As a perfect novella.

In the middle was the Word
(In the Middle Ages, that is – of which you have heard)
A language for folkways, for quaffing ales,
For writing charters, for pilgrim’s tales,
A language ribald, bold and bawdy,
A language pious, plain and godly,
A language for hearing in chants Gregorian
Reminders of the Roman and his guard praetorian,
For hearing in the intoning of the Latin Mass
Echoes of words melded deep in the past;
A language for knighthood battles and tourneys,
For tales of heroes on dangerous journeys,
For the slaying of monsters and dreadful dragons,
For camaraderie and drinking wine in flagons;
A language for Town and Gown, for Christian and Jew,
For gentlefolk and for Everyman too;
A language for recounting noble deeds
And for relating Piers Plowman’s pious Creed;
A language for ballads, for songs of love and loss,
For histories and treatises and travelogues:
English for recording the beginnings of a nation,
English for reading the Bible in translation.

 In Merry England was the Word
Shakespearean – ever spoken, ever heard.
In what other country has a single bard –
Whatever his true identity –
Changed the language so profoundly?
Just as an archeologist from a thousand shards
Reconstitutes a vase of perfect integrity,
So the poet coined a thousand words,
Gifting the language with beauty’s utility.
Indeed, the playwright coined five hundred words more:
Bandit, courtship, birthplace, employer,
Luggage, addiction, outbreak, eventful,
Cold-blooded, worthless, zany, eyeball;
Circumstantial, dialogue, assassination:
Words for the world from a small island nation.

And phrases with authority,
Time-tested by the majority,
He granted perpetuity:
Time-honored, shooting star, into thin air,
Be-all-and-end-all, the dogs of war.

Simple words the poet made resound
With sound from sense and sense from sound;
Couplets brave, or sage, or gentle,
Pairing the emotional with the mental:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end.

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind
And therefore is wingèd Cupid painted blind.

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

Shakespearean titles – handles for forty-odd plays –
Took on familiar meanings for universal ways:
Comedy of Errors for complication,
All’s Well That Ends Well for vindication,
Much Ado About Nothing for exaggeration.

Shakespearean Comedies became Bywords:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream for love’s illusion,
Love’s Labor’s Lost for love’s confusion.

Shakespearean Tragedies became Watchwords:
Hamlet for fatal indecision, for murder: MacBeth;
King Lear for old age, senility, and death;
King Lear again for the pitfalls of succession;
Romeo for star-crossed lovers’ passion;
Othello for jealousy’s deadly obsession.
The Bard our words, our world, transformed:
Time out of mind as beauty reborn.

In the wake of the Armada was the Word
Spoken throughout the seafaring world.
In a face-off of Spanish and English vessels
The Spanish Armada proved far from invincible.
The Britons, with gunnery and ships fully rigged
Harried the Spaniards to quit their Gravelines gig.
Fleeing north up the English coast
The Spanish fleet was soon to be toast;
Taking the long way, making for home,
The Armada lost twenty-odd ships to storms;
In all, of a hundred thirty ships, fifty were lost:
Of the scheme to dethrone the Virgin Queen, this was the cost.
The small island nation, now preeminent on the seaways,
Spread the Word across the globe’s watery highways.
In the centuries following was the Word
Bartered all over the trading world:
A nation of shopkeepers, so-called by Napoleon,
The Brits channeled commerce
From the West to outposts Mongolian:
The bourgeoisie whose industry,
Whose Glorious Revolution indeed
Empowered them to bring the world up to speed.

Pre-dating Napoleon’s glorious hegemony,
France had played out global her destiny.
Busily beheading royalty and nobles,
Dame Revolution became insatiable,
Devouring entitlement’s corrupt senility
Along with liberty, equality and fraternity.
Into her maw with the philosophers’ dreams
Went coined words denoting radical schemes:
Went Thermidor, Brumaire, and Germinal
For a calendar based on decimal time
That was out of sync with reasonable minds:
A scheme too abstract, too utopian
To flourish in the marketplace of notions
Or regulate the seasons of the nations.
In time revolutionary visionaries proved as arcane
As La Pleiade’s versification; as germaine
As brains in vats – to hypostasis –
Cartesian hyper-cogitation to godhead’s man-ifestation;
As remote as the ideal of Parnassus, as unassailable,
Her heights perennially unscalable.
The language of Revolution
Soon bore the signs of devolution.
Once the lingua franca of Europe’s nobility,
French now engendered political sterility.
Despite centuries of literary greatness in store,
From the time of Waterloo French would rule no more.

In the Era of Empire was the Word
Spoken throughout the daylight world.

On the British Empire, it was said
Helios, the Sun, would never set.
It was Phaethon who took the chariot
of Father Helios
Just as Icarus scarpered with the wings
of his father Daedalus.

Seen racing driverless across the evening sky,
Phaethon’s chariot would have set Earth on fire –
Except for the water canon aimed at youth’s protest
Striking the horses of Helios in leg and chest –
So the wayward chariot could never reach a latitude
That was undefended by the canon of Imperial attitude.

That attitude created a global Supernation
By means of forced and volunteer migration.

Forced were the slaves and indentured servants
Brought to the New World to work the land.
Forced were the convicts and indigents
Deported to Australia’s far sea-strand.
And the soldiers who fought in America,
In India, in Burma, and in Rhodesia,
Were they free to choose their destiny,
Or only more free than a slave may be?

Forced were the prostitutes
Deported to New Zealand.
And children traveling with parents
Destined for Van Diemen’s Land.
Forced were the orphans
Relocated to Canada,
To Ontario and Montreal,
Forced, the orphans shipped to Australia
By evangelicals – good Christians all.

In Bristol a thriving slave trade
Driven by profit and a godly faith
Moved humans by the hundreds of thousands
From Africa to America and the Caribbean Islands;
In the ensuing centuries, laboring in house and field,
Generations born into anguish
Enriched the slaveholders
–– and their language.

The British Empire thus reached its summit,
Covering a quarter of the surface of the planet.

Britain took bejeweled words from India’s sacred treasury –
From the land where the Raj ruled more than a century –
Words telling of wisdom and the spirit’s journey;
Illuminations from sages who reached the acme:
English added words like pundit, guru, karma, and dharma,
Bodhisattva and Satyagraha.
More down to Earth, culinary words too
Like curry, tandoori, and vindaloo
Made of Colonial English a rich bubbling stew.

If Marco Polo opened Cathay
To Western eyes and Western trade,
It wasn't so the tongue of Genoa in Italy
Could travel as far as the South China Sea.
Rather it was so that the English language,
Taking on board additional baggage,
Could be expanded by dialects remanded
To the custody of Imperial history.

In the wake of Empire, indeed,
English syllables and British seed
Coursed around the globe at speed;
Surging in waves across America's plains
Where pioneers and preachers and wagon trains
Spread the Word with gospel and grain.

In America –– where Britain’s prize colony was lost––
English conquered what England could not.

And when a World War put an end to Imperialism,
Britain passed the mantle to American Capitalism.

Today British and American English combined
Is spoken by four hundred million women and men.
And the English language in toto
Spoken by one billion souls, is truly a language gone global.

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