Sunday, February 12, 2006

Learning from Linguistic Friendships

First off, Hejsan! to all my readers in Sweden, a whole bunch of whom seem to have gotten here by way of a link someone posted on a Swedish fantasy and RPG site. (Jag börjar lära mig svenska, och var glad att finna en intressanta sida där jag kan öva mig att läser.) Incidentally, Scandinavian readers of Tolkien are bound to recognize some of the Old English words and names of the Rohirrim that are lost on speakers of modern English. E.g., Gamling the Old, where gamol is simply the Old English for 'old', like the modern Swedish word gammal. Relationships like this come from the Norse influence on Old English (from Norwegians and Danes mostly) during the centuries before the Norman Invasion (9th to 11th).

Anyway, the main reason for posting has to do with a quote I remember reading about from either Tolkien or Lewis, I can't remember which. The gist of the quote was that not only were all of the Inklings friends, but that one's friendship with one person illuminated one's friendship with another. To wit: C. S. Lewis had a certain relationship with Tolkien, but it only went so far. But when others of the Inklings were around, he learned even more about Tolkien's personality by watching his interaction with them. Each person brought out a different facet of the personality of each of the others. As members of their circle left or died, Lewis (I think the quote was from him) found that his own friendship with Tolkien was affected as well, by being limited: He would never again be able to watch and learn from the interaction between Tolkien and, say, Charles Williams.

My little epiphany this morning came when I was reading (with extensive help of a dictionary) a Swedish-language blog (Månskensdans -- which now lists Bitter Scroll on his blog list; tack, Johan!). As I look up the word betyder and discover that it means 'to mean' (as in, "tack means 'thanks' in Swedish"), two thoughts rush into my head at the same time. The first is that it's got to be a cognate of German bedeuten: the 'eu' of German was a development from a ü-sound in Middle High German, and that sound is spelled 'y' in Swedish. The second is that betyder looks a lot like 'betide' -- admittedly a word no one uses anymore, but modern English speakers still recognize that the question "What will this betide?" is asking "What will this mean?"

I love moments like this. My short but growing relationship with my new friend, the Swedish language, has helped me form a closer bond with a much older friend, German. (Yeah, I know this sounds weird, but stay with me.) Readers may notice that I often speak of words and languages like members of a family: "These words are cousins, descendng from a common ancestor." ... "Gothic, and its younger Germanic siblings Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old English...", etc. I see the analogy even more clearly now. If you've ever gotten to know the family of a person you know well, you start to see the little ways they act in a new light, and you understand that person better. So it is with language families. If you really want to know a language thoroughly--why it has some of the expressions it does, why certain verbs are defective, why it forms words they way it does, even why it sounds the way it does--get yourself on a linguistic Family and Friends program. You'll never stop learning.


Johan said...

Who could help but love "Words, language, meaning, and ... stuff (mostly of the Germanic kind)"? I'm afraid I have to plead guilty to posting the link on Catahya too. More etymology to the people.

There's nothing like studying related languages if you want linguistic epiphanies.


Mikaela D'eigh said...

It was Lewis and he mentions it in The Four Loves.

King Alfred said...

Thanks. I (believe it or not) haven't read the Four Loves, but I'm pretty sure I read the quote in one of the books I've read about Tolkien and the Inklings. Actually, it might have been Carpenter's biography of JRRT now that I think about it.