Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why English is Such A Mess: Part Ten, The Americans

Mispelling has been a problem
 for Americans from the very begining.
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

Why, for heaven's sakes, can't the English use English?  The fact they spell color, "colour" is the least of it.  I do a double-take when I read about some Brit being sent to gaol or having to fix a flat tyre.  Gaol?  Tyre?  And the way they pronounce "controversy."  God, can't they hear how silly they sound?

Separate people by a few thousand miles of salt water, and some changes are bound to take place, especially since the colonists were exposed to whole new things the English didn't have words for.  Sometimes, they adapted a Native-American word: raccoon, moose, and squash - and sometimes they used an English word, only made it more specific.  In America corn refers to corn on the cob.  In England, until pretty recently, corn could be any grain.

English-speaking Americans, already using a corrupted dialect, got to mingle with the corrupted dialects of immigrants from all over Europe.  From the Cajuns - a corruption of Acadian, ie Canada, we get boocoo, (beaucoup), and levee, and bayou - and from Pennsylvania Dutch, kindergarten, stoop, and cookie (they call it a biscuit in England).  From the Spanish we get rodeo, stevedore, and barbecue.

The jury's is still out where we get the expression, "okay."  That it stood for "Old Kinderhook," seems unlikely.  It may be from Scottish - "och aye" - or Lakota - "hokaheh" - or Choctaw "okeh" - or West African, "waw key."  My favorite etymology is it comes from President Andrew Johnson who initialed papers, "OK," and when asked why, explained it stood for "Oll Korrect."

The fact is, that while we beat the British in the Revolution, they're still more than a match for us when it came to spelling.  We can barely get our heads around, "I before E except after C or sounding like A as in neighbor and weigh.  Oh, except for weird.  And their.  And Keith."  We're stumped that St. John rhymes with engine, and Wooster is pronounced Worster, and could never learn to spell "Foshay," the way they do in England, which is Featheringshaugh.

When it comes to English, let's face it, you can't beat the English. 

Take for example this little note Wellington jotted off one day:

"I see that the fire has communicated from the haystack to the roof of the château. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling in of the roof, or floors. After they will have fallen in, occupy the ruined walls inside of the garden, particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the embers to the inside of the House."

Pretty nifty, huh?  Did you notice how he slips in the future-perfect tense "will have fallen" not to mention the subjunctive, "if it should be possible"?  I bet you didn't even know there was a future-perfect tense.  Bear in mind, he whipped off this little missive during the heat of battle at Waterloo, when he might have been excused for forgetting the circumflex on château.

Compare that to a journal entry by George Washington written in perfectly calm reflection at his own desk in Mount Vernon: 

"Went a hunting with Jackie Custis and catched a Bitch Fox after three hours chace - founded in ye CK. by J. Soals."  

"A hunting" might be acceptable 18th-Century English, but what about chace, and founded, and catched?  Catched?

No wonder the founding fathers were so big on simplified spelling.  Noah Webster's dictionary came out about 50 years after Johnson's version across the pond.  Noah's had a couple of things Johnson didn't - for example, the letter J.  It also had center instead of centre, plow instead of plough, neighbor instead of neighbour, donut instead of doughnut, and tung instead of tongue.

Okay, the spelling of tung, didn't stick.  But next time you and your neighbor pull off the thruway and stop at your favorite Kwik-Mart to check your tire pressure and maybe get a donut, just be glad you're an American.

Assuming you are American.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Nine, The Grammarians

"Or is it supposed to be 'Thou wilt not...?"
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

Anyone can make a mistake, but to really foul things up, you need an expert.

In 1589, William Bullokar wrote the first book on English grammar, which was a start, but other experts spotted the defects right away.  For one thing, Bullokar had written it in English, which was the sort of mistake you'd expect from an amateur, but his successors corrected this by writing their English grammars in Latin, which anybody could see was a much more sensible approach.

By the 1700's you couldn't throw a brick without hitting an expert in English grammar.  Grammarians are like lawyers.  If there's only one, nothing much happens - it takes two or more on opposite sides to really get the ball rolling, and once you have a sufficient quorum, they can brings things to a complete standstill.

The reason for the profusion of these experts was a crying need to "fix" the English language, not fix in the sense of "repair," but in the sense of pin down, keep from moving.  English had gone from, "Hwæt! We Gardena  in geardagum," to "Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote the droghte of March hath perced to the roote," to "What light through yonder window breaks," in just a few hundred years.  Anyone could see that if this precipitous rate of change were left unchecked, English was capable of mutating into anything; why, someday people might be writing nonsense like. "lmao" or "C U L8R" or maybe just smiley faces and stuff.  This had to be prevented.

The only catch was, if you're rooting around for official rules for a language that has no official rules, where do you turn?  The answer, other languages.  For example, mathematics.  In many languages, such a Spanish, you can pile on as many negatives as you please without changing the meaning one iota.  No me cuenta algo, "they don't tell me anything," means just the same as, No me cuentan nada, "they don't tell me nothing," which means the same as No me cuentan nunca nada, "they don't never tell me nothing;" although admittedly the last one starts to sound a little petulant.

But in English, if you say, "They don't tell me nothing," some wise-ass is bound to point out, "Well, that means they do tell you a little something."  The reason two negatives make a positive in English is because that's what they do in mathematics.

Mathematics is all well and good, but the go-to source for the early English grammarians was Latin.  Latin is a dead language, which makes it a perfect model for a living one.  The problem with something so sprightly and fluid as a spoken language is it won't hold still long enough to get a really good look at, unless you wait for it to be in its coffin.

For example, you're not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition.  Maybe that rule makes sense to keep us from saying, "Where are you going to?" instead of just "Where are you going?" but what if you need to ask, "What's this book about?"  Are you really supposed to say, "About what is this book?"  Ending a sentence with a prepostion is perfectly grammatical in most Germanic languages, and English is a Germanic language, but you can't do it in Latin, so you're not supposed to do it in English either.

Latin is also where we got the peculiar rule to never, ever split an infinitive.  The reason you're not supposed to split an infinitive in English is because in Latin, you can't.  The infinitive "to go" is two words in English, but in Latin it's just vadere.  You can't say, "to boldly go" in Latin unless it was something like va-boldly-dere, whatever the Latin word for boldly would be, which I do not intend to look up.  But in English you can split the infinitive, only you may not.

May and can is another one.

These words were used pretty much interchangeably until the 1600's when some grammarian decided can, which comes from a root meaning, "having the knowledge to do something," referred to ability, and may, from a root meaning "having the power to do it," referred to permission.  But it is not grammatically wrong to say, "Can I go to the bathroom?" when asking permission.  Do you hear that, Mrs. Othmar, my third-grade teacher?  There's nothing grammatically wrong with it.

Anyway, the grammarians sought to help us out and bring order to the mare's nest of English language, and to a large extent they have given us useful rules to follow.  But keep in mind, English is not math, and it's not Latin, but its own unique thing, and if some petty snoot wants to sneer at you for perfectly sound English that doesn't happen to conform with some arbitrary injunction set down four hundred years ago by some self-appointed expert, use the retort Winston Churchill made when someone tried to correct his grammar, "This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!"

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Eight, the Crusades

There was bound to be trouble.

Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

Whenever the One True Religion of an All-Good All-Powerful God runs into another One True Religion of an All-Good All-Powerful God, there's bound to be trouble.  In the case of Jerusalem, it was claimed as sacred to the All-Good All-Powerful God of at least three different One True Religions, so you can just imagine the bloodshed.

The first Crusade was launched in 1096, on that everyone pretty much agrees, and they went on until 1291 give or take a couple of hundred years.  Exactly how many Crusades there were is hard to say.  Between seven and nine major crusades, and a lot of little ones.  Like the Crusade of Louis IX, is he supposed to get credit for two Crusades or just one big Crusade?  It's all very complicated.

Anyway, this brought English-speakers and a lot of other Europeans into contact with Arabic languages.  Not surprisingly, we gained a lot of words had to do with military matters - a Saracen military commander was an amir, from which we get admiral.  The "d" probably got stuck in there because people thought the rank meant we were supposed to admire him.  Darsina, which was Arabic for manufacturer, became arsenal, and of course the ḥashāshīn, which wasn't really a religious sect, but a nickname for one, like "Quaker" or "Mormon," gave us assassin.

Check is such an Anglo-Saxon-sounding word, it's hard to believe it comes from, shah, king.  An exchequer works for the king handling the petty cash drawer and the Christmas fund and what-not, and is entitled to write checks.  In chess, we say, "check," when the king's in a pickle, and when he's completely cornered, it's "checkmate," from shah mat - the "king dies."

The Muslim world was way ahead of Western Europe in things like algebra and chemistry and gave us words like, well, algebra and chemistry.  Zero, of course, is Arabic as are cipher, and azimuth, and zenith, and algorithm.

Then there were all those thing Westerners didn't have words for because Westerners had just never seen them - things like jasmine, harems, guitars, gauze, hashish, aubergines, tangerines, oranges, sugar, sherbet (and also syrup and sorbet) saffron, and gerbils.

The Crusades were a dark spot in history, but they did serve to enrich English culture and language in many ways.  The last of the Crusades was 1296, I think I said, or maybe it was really closer to 1396, or it might have been 1456, but that was absolutely the last one, really.  It took awhile, but we finally learned our lesson, I'm glad to say, and the West and the Middle East have been at perfect peace and haven't given each other a lick of trouble ever since then, thank goodness.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Seven-B, The French, The Freaking French

William the Conqueror begins introducing words to English
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

So in the last episode, William the Bastard became William the Conqueror and comes over to be king of England.  Even then, he might not have had that much impact on the language if the English lords had been able to get with the program and just deal with it, but oh, no, they had to go and make a fuss.  And every time one of the Anglo-Saxon lords made a fuss, naturally, W the C had to have him rubbed out, and then he'd bring over a Frenchman to replace him, and then another lord would make a fuss about that, and he'd get rubbed out and a Frenchman would replace him.  And this went on until just about everybody who was anybody was French.

The next sentence is so peculiar, I'm going to write it twice.


For hundreds of years, the official language in England was French.


For hundreds of years, the official language in England was French.


Everything that went on at the royal court - including the words "royal" and "court" - was conducted in French.  Most of the hoity-toity set didn't even know English.  The upshot was that if you were an Anglo-Saxon during this period, assuming you weren't rubbed out, you learned you some French as fast as you could learn it.  When English re-emerged after this hundreds' years dousing with French, it was entirely transformed.  For comparison's sake, here's the opening lines of Beowulf again, which as you will recall, are written in Old English, before the Norman Conquest:


Hwæt! We Gardena  in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.


What the freak, right?  I mean, what the freakin' freak?


But now, here's the opening from Canterbury Tales:


Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote the droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour, of which vertu engendred is the flour...


I mean, that's much better, right?  It's still goofy as heck, but you can hope to pick out a word here and there.  In fact, after you study it for a while, you can actually read it.  It's just the spelling really.  It looks like it was typed by someone wearing oven mitts, or who'd gotten his hands on too much of that switch liquor, whatever that is.  What's even more amazing is that Canterbury Tales was written only about 300 years after the Norman Conquest.  English had changed that much.


In addition to making English more like English, the Normans introduced French as a prestige vocabulary.  If you were going to plead your case to the local magistrate, you better not drag any of your dirty, vulgar Anglo-Saxon in there, but be sure to use your dainty, polite Norman French.  If someone's trying to impress you, he won't say, "Go to the boss and get the work papers to fill out" (Anglo-Saxon) but "Proceed to the administrator and obtain the employment documentation for completion" (Norman French).  Both sentences mean exactly the same thing, but French-derived vocabulary has a strong snob appeal for English speakers.


This applies to other fields as well.  We like to use Greek or Latin words for our scientific vocabulary.  If you go to your doctor - a good Latinate word from the root "to teach" - and say a perfectly sensible Anglo-Saxon sentence like, "My fingers is swole!" he'll diagnose - (from the Greek, "to know") it as "digititis," and you'll think, "Now, I'm getting somewhere," except what he said means exactly the same thing as my fingers is swole.


This even goes as far as the dinner table.  I would be appalled (Norman French, "to turn white") if my darling wife told me we were having sliced pig for supper.  Instead of the Anglo-Saxon word, she uses the more appetizing pork which comes from French.  A cow is the animal in the field: chewing cud and pooping, but she changes her name from Anglo-Saxon to the Norman French beef when she's on the table.  Chicken still gets to be chicken whether it's in a pen or a red-and-white bucket, but sometimes goes by the Norman-French equivalent, poultry.  For some reason fish is fish and only fish whether it's in the water or breaded and fried.  Maybe the French poisson, "fish," looks too much like poison to be very appetizing.


Norman French is also why we have so many dirty words.  Or rather, it's why the dirty words in English are so much dirtier than the dirty words in other languages.  Merde in French, is no more than a mild oath.  I knew a Panamanian grandmother who called her grandchildren - affectionately - mierditas.  Our Anglo-Saxon equivalents - the vulgar connotation of the language combined with the thing itself makes some words dang near unprintable.


Consider; I can say feces, excrement, and elimination - all Norman French.  But I would blush to write a simple synonym that starts with s and rhymes with "pit."  The s-word is Anglo-Saxon, therefore dirty.  But would you stepped in something you thought was an Old English turd, would you really feel better to know it was Norman French excrement?


Fornicate, copulate, coitus, and sexual intercourse are all Norman French and all mean the same as the f-word, which is Anglo-Saxon, and therefore too naughty for this blog.  (Roy Blount, Jr. also points out that the f- word happens to have a very ugly sound, like a boot being pulled out of mud.)


"Pardon my French," is kind of a joke because the person never says it after using Norman French, but Anglo-Saxon.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Seven-A, The French, the Freaking French

"Oh, that old thing?
That's just a Bayeux Tapestry."
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

At this point English is about to get really messed up.

I don't know much about Edward the Confessor, but he must've been a real piece of work; before he died he managed to convince three people - two of them named Harry - that they should each be the king of England.  Evidently, if you had dinner at Edward's place, sooner or later, he'd take you aside and say, "I got no kids, no heirs.  You know who I want to be king of this joint when I kick it?  You, bubby.  I love you like a son, I mean it."

Before you go thinking these three guys were just a bunch of callous opportunists looking to glom onto a vacant throne, keep in mind, in a situation like this, when there's three people in the running, your chances, not of winning, but survival are only 33%.  These guys each seriously thought he should be king of England.
"I just love being a horse."

The story starts when Edward died and his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson assumed the crown.  Meanwhile, though, another Harry, Harald Hardrada - (his last name means something like "hard head") - decided he should be king of England.  Harald H. had finally given up after years of trying to conquer Denmark, when Tostig Godwinson, Harold G's brother (the other Harry, are you keeping track of this?) said, "Hey, why don't you be king of England.  I'll throw my support behind you.  The other Harold, I know he's my brother and all, but he's kind of a loser when you get down to it.  I mean, just look at him."  So Harald H. and Tostig set sail for England, arriving in the north, and Harold G. marches up to meet them.


Is that guy eating pizza?
It only takes two battles to decide the matter, Harald and Tostig win the first round at Fulford, but Harold Godwinson prevails at a place called Stamford Bridge, and Harald and Tostig are killed.

This occasioned great rejoicing among the Anglo-Saxons.  For starters, there was one less Harry to keep track of, which made matters a whole lot simpler.  Secondly, historically, Harald symbolized the last of the Vikings, so you can imagine the veterans slapping each other on the shoulder and saying, "We've symbolically killed the last symbolic Viking and symbolically the symbolic age of Vikings is symbolically over.  Huzzah!"  But then, just when they thought there was nothing but smooth sailing ahead, they learn William the Bastard has invaded England from the south.

Now you're going to have to cast your mind back to Part Two of this series, The Romans.  The Romans never conquered all that far north, preferring to focus on shipping lanes, especially in the Mediterranean, remember?  And the British Isles lie almost exactly at the midpoint where the Roman sphere of influence leaves off, and the Germanic people pick up, remember?  Up to now, most of the folks invading England - Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and whoever else, were all Germanic.  But William the Bastard came from just below the imaginary line of Roman influence, and spoke a Romance language: French.


"Bonk"
Well, it wasn't French-French, it was Norman French.  Normandy was so named because it was settled by Normans, ie North-men, ie Norse-men, ie Vikings.  So after Harold defeated Harald, the symbolic last Viking, he had to face the descendant of another Viking, William the Bastard, only William wasn't speaking Old Norse, but some agglutination of Old Norse and Old French, got it?  Jesus, I swear, history would be so much simpler if people quit invading each other and just stayed put.

Anyway, someone had put it in William's head that if he conquered England, people might start calling him William the Conqueror instead of William the Bastard.  So now the remaining Harold marched down, leaving many of his troops behind.  He met William at Hastings where the future conqueror had thrown up a wooden fort.  This was only a few weeks after the defeat of Harald the Hard-Headed.

Activities started around 9, on October 14, 1066.  It was over in one day.

William sails back to Normandy, "Honey, I'm ho-ome," and his wife, Matilda, is like, "How was work today, honey?"  And William's like (big grin) "Guess who has two thumbs and rules England?  This guy!"  And he points at himself with both thumbs, and she's like, "Darling, I knew you could do it!"  And she hugs him, and starts talking about what she'll wear for his coronation.


Harold gets it.
Ka-Pweeng!
I got a feeling Matilda was pretty obnoxious after her husband conquered England.  She was probably one of those people who brags in a way that makes it sound like she's complaining.  "Oh, there's so much to do, I can't even tell you how busy I am.  We've got to change all the monogrammed towels from William the Bastard to William the Conqueror, and I've got to design a crown, and then there's all these people we'll be ruling - and not just the people, there's chattels, too.  Oh, dear, and some of the people are chattels. it's all so complicated."  Or else she'd be like, "Oh, that old thing?  That's just a Bayeux Tapestry.  It's a little thing I knitted Billy when he conquered England."

See, Matilda and her ladies in waiting decided to make a little tapestry to commemorate the victory, only once they got started, they just couldn't seem to stop.  It's two-hundred-thirty feet long.  There's lots of action and ships and people bonking each other with clubs, a comet goes by, and some people cook a meal, but the high-point as far as Matilda was concerned was the spot where Harold Godwinson gets it in the eye with an arrow.  Matilda was a bloodthirsty so-and-so.

October 14, 1066 is one of those days when history pivots on its axis.  Harold was at a disadvantage, having marched all those miles and having fought two battles already, but things could easily have gone the other way.  There's no reason William couldn't have gotten an arrow in his eye, and then we'd still be speaking who knows what, but not what we speak today, whatever that is.  The effects of the Norman Conquest are so profound, I can't squeeze them into today's blog, so we'll have to do more tomorrow.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Six, The Vikings

Clearly, This Guy is not a Real Viking
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Vikings.  People think they were a bunch of blood-thirsty marauders who wore helmets with horns and went around raping and pillaging.  The time has come to put a stop to this nonsense.  The Vikings did not wear helmets with horns.  If you think Vikings had helmets with horns, you're just living in a fool's paradise.

When it came to the other stuff, the Vikings were all over it: raping wives and daughters, burning crops, and carrying off livestock - and any other permutation of the preceding nouns and verbs you care to name.  One thing the Vikings loved was a good monastery.  A monastery was like ice cream to Vikings, especially if it had priceless works of religious art and stuff.


Rape and pillage is all well and good, but sooner or later, you want a regular job.  The Vikings eventually decided instead of raping other men's wives and daughters and stealing their crops and livestock, they'd just move in, have their own wives and daughters, crops and livestock, and thereby cut out the middleman.  After this, they stopped being Vikings and began being Danes.


When the Danes started moving in, it was a good thing and a bad thing.  It was a bad thing if you happened to occupy the real estate they had an eye on, but it was a good thing because it was marginally better being neighbor to a Dane than an out-an-out Viking.  With a Dane, you could hope to reason with him.  You could say more than, "Take my wife, please, but don't stab me with that... arggghhh."  The catch is, if you were going to talk with a Vik- excuse me, Dane, you had to be able to talk.


What the Danes spoke was Old Norse, only, naturally, they didn't call it that, and I don't know what they did call it, so don't ask.  The catch was, Old Norse was very, very similar to Old English, but not exactly.  Think of a Mexican talking to a Brazilian, something like that.  You can make yourself understood provided you aren't too persnickety about grammar.  


The heading on this blog promises to answer why we say "mice" instead of "mouses" and "geese" instead of "gooses."  A better question is why there aren't more even more wierd-o plurals.  Why don't mothers - excuse me, mothern - say, "Children put on your shoen before you ride the oxen, or you might poke out your eyen."  The fact is, that's exactly what an Anglo-Saxon might have said, in an admittedly bizarre set of circumstances.


Old English had several sets of words, each with its own rules for pluralizing.  Some, you just added a good old -s to the end, like microwave ovens and emoticons, and some you changed the vowel sound of, like men or mice and geese, and some you added an -n to, like oxen and children and brethren.  But it used to be, there were a lot of words in each of these groups, but after the Danes, not so much.  If your Danish neighbor asked you, "How much do you want for those horses of yours?" you wouldn't say, "That's horsen, you dolt, you're using the wrong declension," unless you wanted to see him forget his manners and go all Viking on your ass.


At the end of the day, the grammar of Old English simplified and became less synthetic and more analytic.  In short, it mattered less what form a word took, than its position in the sentence.  This process of simplification when one language comes in contact with a related, but different, one, is called rubbing.  And when it comes to rubbing, no one did it better than the Danes, with or without horned helmets.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Five, The Church

After Edwin of Northumbria converted to Christianity,
the monk finally stopped talking.
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

Now for a brief commercial message from our Lord and Savior.  

All kidding aside, whatever effect Christianity had on England's souls, it made a huge mark on the language.  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New in Greek, and the liturgy was conducted in Latin, so for openers, we have streams from three very different languages trickling into English.

When Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine (not that St. Augustine, St. Augustine of Canterbury) to convert the Angles, he said, "I tell you they are not Angles but angels."  The pun wouldn't make sense if we hadn't picked up angel from the Greek, angelos, "messenger."  Pope Gregory had seen an Angle boy for sale in a slave market, and been taken by his blond hair and blue eyes.  Put simply, the Angles looked like freaks.  St Patrick had already converted the Irish about 100 years before, but the Irish were Celts, and the Anglo-Saxons were still pagan.  (Technically, they may have been not pagan, but heathen.  Pagan, from the Latin pagani, refers to any civilian who lives in the country, whereas heathen specifically refers to someone who lives in the heath.)

So in addition to words like angel and devil (Greek) we got crucifix (Latin, whence also, excruciating) and chapel (also Latin, from the "small cape" capella, St. Martin gave a beggar.)   Heathen is Old Norse, possibly a mis-translation of Hellene, ie a Greek woman metnioned by Matthew.  If so, the mistake was so apropos, we stuck by it.  Pagan sounds like someone who makes burnt offerings, but you just know a heathen goes around nekkid.

If translating Greek into English contained potholes, Hebrew contained landmines.  Scapegoat may be a mistaken reading of of Azazel, a fallen angel, as the verb azel, "to remove."  So there's a question whether the Bible talks about earmarking a goat as an offering to a supernatural being, or just "a goat that gets away," ie, an (e)scape-goat.  The problem is compounded because the ancient Hebrews took happy liberty with others' languages.  The Philistine God, Baalzebul, something like, "God Prince," the Hebrews renamed to mean "God of Bugs."  This was a big joke on the Philistines.  "Ha-ha, you know who you worship?  God of Bugs!  Yanner-nanner-nanner!"  Centuries later, the sarcastic context forgotten, Beelzebub assumed a chilling connotation as Lord of the Flies.

Some concepts were so important, we ended up with words for them in two or three languages.  Apocalypse (Greek) and Revelation (Latin) mean exactly the same thing - to uncover, or, if you prefer, to dis-cover.  The bread and wine may be referred to as the Eucharist (Greek, "good favor"), Communion (Latin, "joining together"), or the Lord's Supper (Anglo-Saxon and Old French, something like, "dinner with the boss.")  Gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon, "God-spell," indirectly translated from the Greek euangelizisthai, "Good News," hence, evangelist.  (Notice the root, angel, "messenger," in evangelist?)  Most of the books of the Bible come to us in Greek, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and the Epistles (Letters in Latin) - and the word Bible itself (book), is Latin, by way of Greek, by way - possibly - of Egyptian, where it might have referred to a small papyrus scroll.

Testament, as in New and Old, is good, sturdy Latin, from testificari, "to bear witness," from testis, "to witness," also meaning "testicle."  Apparently the story that Romans once took oaths by swearing on their testicles is untrue, which is kind of a disappointment.  It's the sort of thing you'd expect from a bunch of heathens.