Thursday, July 21, 2005

Kine is money

Cattle was money in the ancient world. This sounds like a cultural statement, but it's a linguistic observation too. In Hebrew, one of the words for cattle, miqneh, also carries a connotation of 'purchase' (cf. Gen49:32). The Latin word pecu meant cattle originally, but money generally, as we see in English words like 'pecuniary'. 'Pecuniary' is a fancy word meaning 'related to money'. The Germanic words that survive in English are much more down to earth: 'fee', for example, or 'gold' (cf. German Geld, 'money').

Here's the cool part. 'Fee' comes from Old English feoh, which also means 'cattle, money'. It is how the Anglo-Saxons ended up pronouncing *fehu, which is what Latin pecu sounded like when the original Germanics got hold of it. So you have the same root from Indo-European coming into English twice: once straightaway, as it was forming as its own separate language, and again over a millennium later when modern English was on a linguistic shopping spree, taking words from Latin for scholarly purposes left and right. (Well, maybe not 'right', but 'left' came directly into English as sinister.)

We see this again in the concept of "above, over." English started out with over, ofer, but that wasn't enough for the fine nuances English vocabulary would come to be capable of. So in addition to our own word, we have taken no less than three words or prefixes from other languages: German ueber-, the Latin super-, and the Greek hyper-. These didn't just mean the same thing (roughly) in their respective languages, they were the same word! It is oddly appropriate that the commercially-minded English, who gave the particularly commercial connotation to the word 'fee', should receive such a rich return-on-linguistic-investment.

These are the same English who ruled half the world with said commercial empire.

Resistance is futile. Your words will be assimilated.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


It's a funny phrase: loanwords. Linguistically, this refers to when the speakers of one language "borrow" a word from another language to express a concept, either because they're also taking the concept from that language/culture (like the really cool German word Sprachgefühl, which really has to be more explained than translated), or because their own native word has changed in meaning or connotation.

Occasionally, though, languages that have borrowed a word will pay it back, with interest. The old Germanic languages were rich with vocabulary relating to the lively mythology of elves, trolls, dwarves, giants, etc. So when the Franks, a Germanic tribe, stopped speaking their native Germanic tongue somewhere around the 7th or 8th century (I think) in favor of a version of Latin that became Old French, they found they still needed to keep, or come back and borrow, some Germanic words.

Take "troll", for example. Troll was the old Norse, German, Saxon, English, Franconian and Frisian word for "troll"; it really hasn't changed much, in either spelling or meaning. We tend to know what a troll is from fairytales; other cultures usually have to learn the concept along with the word (though often they have something somewhat analogous). Anyway, so Old French borrows or preserves the word troll, and even forms a verb troller from it, meaning "to act like a troll", i.e., "to wander about".

Here's where the transaction gets interesting. The French, having taken the word and done something new with it, now give this new word back to a Germanic tribe, the English. Paid in full, with interest.

But wait: there's more! These ginsu knives--sorry, wrong channel. Now the English look at their repaid word and say, "We already have our own Germanic word that means to wander: 'wander'! What shall we use this one for?" In the end, there were two answers: music and fishing. "I say," someone says, "you know how we do that singing-in-parts thingy? I rather imagine it's as if the melody wanders from person to person."

So it is that we have the verb "to troll" meaning to sing in rounds; as in "Troll the ancient Yuletide carol!" (from "Deck the Halls"). And in fishing, it means to trail a line and move the boat around, still a variation on the "wandering" theme.

As a result, the English vocabulary is that much richer. So, er, don't hide your words under a bushel basket; invest them wisely. In Franks.
I just committed to writing two entries for the very exciting upcoming JRR Tolkien Encyclopedia for Scholarship and Critical Assessment, and since one of them is on Old High German, I was going over my OHG primer last night. (By last night I merely mean that it's now after midnight, b/c after watching House, M.D., and going over the OHG, I stayed up even further to read ... *gasp* ... the newest Harry Potter book.) Maybe another blogpost will discuss Harry Potter and Tolkien and magic and the impressionability of children and such, this one's about Proto-Indo-European (PIE), or just Indo-European.

Right, well, those of you who are left probably know what it is, but for the internet initiate who just hasn't learned to click away fast enough, it's the *language that must have existed in order to explain the regular patterns of relationships between the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Romance, Persian, and other languages (the Indo-European family). It is a unique type of delight for an amateur (for now) philologist to see two words as different as 'hostile' and 'guest' and know that they came from the same root. (The common element is 'stranger'. Ironic, isn't it, that it was the Germanics that assumed a friendly connotation, while the Latin assumed the stranger was an enemy.)

So you have a proposed (hence the asterisk) form that would have looked (had it ever been written down in the Latin alphabet) something like *chost I suppose, where the 'ch' means the sound in the Scottish word loch, not the sound in English 'chest'. From here, the Latins lightened it to host plus a Latin ending ... hence hostis, 'enemy'. The Germanic tribes (all still speaking the same common tongue at this point) tended to turn the 'ch' sound from PIE into a 'g', and a's into o's, so they started pronouncing it gast. And in fact, that's still the modern German word for 'guest'. The reason the English word is different is that the Saxons who migrated to Britain changed the vowel further because of the letter 'i' in the suffix that used to be there but which is now gone even though its effect (i-umlaut) remains. It's all so wonderfully complicated.

So you have one type of philological fun, which is comparing cognates in different languages (let's call this horizontal), but you also have the fun of tracing one word through its history, with change after change in spelling and pronunciation, and perhaps even in meaning, until it's hardly the same word anymore (this would be vertical). When you look at that word, and you see in each letter all the versions that have gone before it--each consonant and each vowel seeming to recall its immediate ancestor--and what's more, when you use that word fully intending in one fell swoop several of the various meanings and nuances it had along the way (the more the better), as if having a little inside joke with yourself--if all this comes naturally to you, then you're probably a born philologist. And probably crazy, too, but that's not for me to decide. Just to relate.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Magic of Trite Phrases

Channel surfing Sunday afternoon rendered this little nugget: "When we come back, Pompei reveals its treasures, and the city is resurrected through the magic of the computer."

Sigh. Silly me, I keep thinking we've progressed beyond the uncomprehending amazement required to use phrases like "the magic of the computer". Magic, in this sense, is used to mean "something that works although no one really understands why" (according to Merriam-Webster), or more precisely here, "...although I, the speaker, don't really understand why".

I'm sorry, but the word "magic" really is not meant for this kind of situation, unless you are dazzled by flying carriages and moving pictures and my boomstick! While computers are really cool and powerful and efficient and, for sometimes several blissful minutes at a time, even bug-free, I guess I don't want to believe that anyone in the 21st-century United States should still view them as "magical"--especially anyone hosting a tv show dedicated to the scientific investigation of mysteries of ancient history. I think it was Leonard Nimoy.

Why am I talking about computers in a blog about language? Well, it becomes a matter of language when you consider that the speaker, or actually the script writer for the show, may not really be as ignorant as his speech suggests--at least not about computers. It may be that he knows a lot about computers; almost any competent user in America under the level of hacker might use the phrase if they're lazy enough in their speech. The point is, it's a phrase that got used so much when computers were still all mystical and magical, that it's now one of those sets of words that people now think of in a group, and use without thinking. It's the linguistic path of least resistance: as soon as the concepts of "by means of" and "computer" appear in the mind, the words "through the magic of the computer" form naturally--and isn't it easier when we don't have to think about our words before we say them!

The quick-witted among my reader or readers (it is a new blog, after all) may at this point perceive a certain irony in the juxtaposition of my complaining about people not deliberating over every word, in a blog post that's hardly going to go through intense revisions and drafting before it gets published and, since it's 3 in the morning, probably repeats itself and probably repeats itself and may even use overused phrases of its own. But then, I'm not getting paid the big bucks for a national television show.

Time to click "Submit". Or should it say "mischief managed"?


Thursday, July 7, 2005

Another First Post, and They Might Be Bloggers

Why the Bitter Scroll? Maybe it's because only an intelligent allusion to an Old Testament prophecy can begin describe the eloquence of my tongue as it will spill forth onto this electronic page. Right, whatever. Maybe it's because I'm an embittered, hardline grammarian who bursts blood vessels just thinking about the possibility of language changing, and rules along with it. Or maybe I'm bitter in my own superiority because of the stupid typo in my own blog's title, which was supposed to be The Better Scroll.

It doesn't matter, and I'm not going to tell you. All you need to know (Business on this blog is definitely conducted on need to know basis, and as we used to say at my last workplace: your job is none of your business; be assured you will be chastized at the appropriate time) ... as I was saying, all you need to know about this blog is that its content will be generally language related--and which language is up to me. Be forewarned, you will not likely agree with, or even be interested in, any two consecutive opinions I express here, but I promise I have good reasons for them all (which I may or may not provide in a manner you can understand). I can speak, can read, or have dabbled in more languages than there are distinct ingredients in the typical Taco Bell menu item, and I have had more intense, analytical, and often petty discussions about English, or simply languages in theory, than anyone I know can stand (except maybe for gaetanus). But then that's the reason for the blog: so I can vomit forth my unabashedly nerdy yet uncomfortably sardonic opinions to people I don't know.

Now, as for the need-to-know-basis thing: Here are some things you need to know. I love the English language, with all its inconsistencies, absurdities of pronunciation, wildly meandering etymologies, and not least of all, its wonderfully down-to-earth Germanic roots. I love studying grammars and finding cognates between languages. I realize that languages change, yet at any given point, there are still rules that (usually) must be followed. The art of language is, when wielded well, stable but not rigid, flexible and dynamic but not amorphous and meaningless. Language is a convention, which means that words don't usually mean things intrinsically, but by common agreement. The parties to this agreement may all subconciously change what they mean by something, and if so, it is a historical reality to be reckoned with, for good or ill. I hold strongly to rules of grammar, because they exist and because ignoring them is usually a sign of the "uneducated" (don't worry, they're not offended, b/c they're not reading this blog in the first place). But I think that any rule followed by convention is liable to reasoned analysis and review, not blind adherence. This is why I believe that it is not heretical, un-American, un-English, or an offense against all that is good and decent to split an infinitive when it serves the purpose of clarity. And as to ending sentences with prepositions I say, along with Winston Churchill, that, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." [For those of you not reading this b/c you fall into the aforementioned category of "uneducated", that last sentence was a good example of the earlier aforementioned sardonic wit of your author.]

I think that'll do for a first post. Please go about your regularly scheduled lives.