Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Every writer has their cross to bear. I say that because after offering token resistance, English teachers throughout the North American continent have had to abandon the defense of the generic masculine singular pronoun as used by such classic writers as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Katherine Anne Porter—need I go on? So as grotesque as their may be, it beats endlessly repeated his or her. “Every dog has his or her day”? All this is a necessary tribute to what is called “inclusive language”. Being a fairly modern sort of a fellow I am all in favor of inclusive language except, perhaps, when unleashed upon the repertoire of great sacred music.
Fortunately our own native tongue, English, and especially American English, is inclusive by long habit, indeed one might say exuberantly inclusive. In this it differs dramatically from an exclusive language like French. I was reminded of this while reading a characteristically interesting post on one of the blogs I follow, “A French Education.” Its author, P. B. Lecron, reminds us that “The French take protection and preservation of their language seriously, so seriously that a commission specialized in terminology and neologisms maintains an inventory of and oversees the introduction of new words officially admitted into the language.”
France is a great nation, and its contributions to world culture are dazzling. But every now and again the French come up with something that gives one pause: the revolutionary Committee on Public Safety, let us say, or the Dreyfus Affair, or Jean-Paul Sartre. Somewhere along that spectrum of dubiety one would have to place the institution of the French Language Police.
Le Robert, from the bloguiste's library
Language is somewhat like war. (What isn’t?) The Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s famous formula for military success was to “get there first with the most”. I just conducted a scientific experiment, and discovered the following. The French lexicon comes in at about fourteen inches. The English lexicon comes in at about thirty-seven inches. We just have more words, and I mean way more words, than anybody else. This richness of the English vocabulary is not the product of committee deliberations in which some graybeards vote on whether or not one can say weekend or fin de siècle. No. This is America. You can say whatever the hell you please. If it jives, it thrives. If not, not. You can stick that in your cybercarnet.
OED, from the bloguiste's library
Imagine that Archbishop Stigand had been able to chair a committee to sniff out neologisms immediately following the piratical Norman invasion of 1066. Old English was a well developed Germanic language, and it had serviceable words for most things that a peasant—I mean of course a churl--came across in the course of the day. There was a nice compact one for the animal that goes moo-moo. It was cú, “cow”. The committee could have nixed beef. The oink-oink animal already had two words: swín and *picga. Surely we didn’t need yet another, (ugh!) pork? But a great language is not some tender seedling that needs to be preserved under artificial light in a hothouse. The idea that it needs “protection and preservation” by a committee is funny, facetious, hilarious, not to mention drôle.
Archbishop Stigand: too busy for words
The way to grow a great language is to let it go with the flow. Anybody who has read Beowulf even in translation knows that there were four hundred and twelve English words meaning guys who run around with spears, swords, lances, and bucklers maiming and killing each other. But a truly inclusive language knows no limits. So we glommed onto some more, including the Norman warrior. (This was before some earlier Parisian committee decided to banish W from the French language, where in the old Norman texts it played such a noble role.)
Nothing is more important in such a society as that of early England than what we now call “homeland security”. Primitive Germanic clearly had several perfectly good words for a fortified place. Among them was the word that developed into the suffix –burg in High German (Hamburg, etc.) and in modern English –bury (Canterbury, Salisbury, etc.) What Canterbury meant was “the fortified place in Kent”.
One of the Latin words for a fortified place was castellum. The obvious English reflex is castle, and we find place-names with -castle in them, with or with actual castles, all over England. But in France castellum first became castel, then chateau. But since in a feudal world a castle is a conspicuous example of real property, the word came to mean other kinds of property as well, goods and livestock. The English word chattels denotes the former, while cattle denotes the latter. But of course many of the folks building the castles in England were still speaking French when they did so, and we get the characteristic French ch in Chester (and many others). West Chester PA is simply the town west of Chester PA, but Westchester County NY derives eventually from an English castle that was, in relation to some other fixed point, west. Today you can butcher one of your cattle, turn it into steak Chateaubriand, and wash it down nicely with a couple of glasses of a chateau-bottled vintage—and not for a moment realize the circle of linguistic tautology in which you are swirling. And there’s no committee to stop us.
Old Castle and New Castle. You tell me which is which.