Posts Tagged ‘languages’

One Horn

May 31, 2017

I have been studying German lately, mostly by using Duolingo, and I have noticed an interesting difference between English and German. This article I read about Ira Einhorn, the founder of Earth Day who murdered and composted his girlfriend brought the difference to mind.

Ira Einhorn was on stage hosting the first Earth Day event at the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia on April 22, 1970. Seven years later, police raided his closet and found the “composted” body of his ex-girlfriend inside a trunk.

A self-proclaimed environmental activist, Einhorn made a name for himself among ecological groups during the 1960s and ’70s by taking on the role of a tie-dye-wearing ecological guru and Philadelphia’s head hippie. With his long beard and gap-toothed smile, Einhorn — who nicknamed himself “Unicorn” because his German-Jewish last name translates to “one horn”  —advocated flower power, peace and free love to his fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania. He also claimed to have helped found Earth Day.

Einhorn is actually the German word for unicorn. What I have noticed is that English tends to create new words for new or abstract concepts by taking words from other languages, particularly Latin and Greek and often combining them in new ways not found in the original languages. German tends to create new words from other German words and seems to be less eager to take words from other languages.

In English we watch television (Greek tele “far” + Latin visionem, participle of videre “to see”). Germans watch the Fernseher (literally “far-seer” in German). We may study science (Latin scientia “knowledge) in school while Germans study Wissenschaft (“knowledge” in German). If you study chemistry you may be familiar with the elements, like hydrogen (Greek Hydr “water” + gen “produces or born from” thus “made from water”) or oxygen (Greek oxys “acid”+ gen so “made from acid). In German they are Wasserstoff (waterstuff) and Sauerstoff (sourstuff). Carbon comes from Latin carbonem “coal” Germans call it Kohlenstoff, “coalstuff”.

Electricity (Latin electrum and Greek elektron both meaning amber) is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. The Germans do have the word Elektrizität but they also call it Strom “stream, current”. We may be afraid of exposure to radiation(Latin radiationem “shining” from radius “beam of light). A German would prefer not to be exposed to Strahlung “beaming”.

You don’t have to study science to notice the difference. English speakers may vote (Latin votus “to vow”) in an election (Latin ex “out of” + legere “to choose”) for Congress (Latin congressus from com “with” + gradus “to walk” thus walking or meeting together) or Parliament (French from parler “to speak”). Germans may abstimmen (choose or coordinate) in a Wahl (choice) for the Bundestag (Bundes “Federal” Tag literally “day” from Latin diet “daily” the name of various representative assemblies in the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere). This body may pass legislation (Latin legis latio “proposing a law”). In German it is Gesetzgebung (Gesetz “law” + gebung “-tion” so “lawization”. In English, we may participate (Latin participare “to share”) in and organization (Latin organizationem from organum “organ”). In German they teilnehmen (take part) in a Unternehmen (undertaking). I could go on and on but you get the idea.

I don’t want to exaggerate the contrast between the two languages. German does have plenty of words derived from Latin, mostly taken, like English through French, and English, of course, does make new words out of older English words, just like German. We can say we take part in an “undertaking” too. In fact, English seems to have a double vocabulary, one made up of simpler words derived from Anglo-Saxon and another composed of fancier words from French and Latin. Which approach is better, the German or the English is a matter of taste, I think. English perhaps has more words and is more eager to appropriate words from other languages, but all those Latin words may make English a more abstract language in some respects, one more easy to obfuscate in. German seems somehow homier, yet as anyone who tried to read Hegel or some of the other German philosophers can attest, German can also be an obfuscating language with dense verbiage.

So, why is English half a romance language, while German remains, well, Germanic? Part of the reason must be that there was nothing like the Norman Conquest in German history. Germany was not conquered by a nation that spoke a Romance Language as England was conquered by the French speaking Normans and so there was not the huge influx of Latin derived words into German as there was with English.

Yet, I also think that there is another reason why English has generally been careless about adopting words. from other languages. For some reason, English speakers seem to lack the concern about language purity found in the speakers of many other languages. The French have the Academie Francaise, an official institution that tries to safeguard the purity of the French language by setting standards for usage and inventing proper French words to replace any foreign words that have managed to slip in. Almost every major language has a similar official organization to set standards, with one exception, English. There has never been any sort of official or semi-official body in the English speaking world with any authority to set official standards for usage, or even for spelling, nor has there been any serious movement to purify the English language by purging it of “foreign” words. Other languages have had spelling reforms sponsored by various governments. German spelling was reformed in 1901 and again in 1996. The People’s Republic of China simplified the characters used in written Chinese, and there was even a proposal, shortly after the Communists came to power to abandon the characters altogether in favor of romanization. Ataurk ordered the Turks to abandon their traditional use of the Arabic script to write Turkish in favor of the Latin alphabet. Nothing like that is likely to occur in English, even though English orthography is a mess and badly needs to be simplified.

It seems that there is simply about the Anglophone mind and culture that tends to resist regimentation and regularization imposed from above, even when such such regularization might make things easier. English speakers have generally been the most reluctant to adopt the metric system, and the United States still uses the traditional system of measurements. We seem to prefer things haphazardly and chaotically rather than rational and regular, and we don’t mind speaking a language where every rule has an exception and in which if we don’t have a word for something, we have no trouble stealing words from other languages. If the new words aren’t proper English words, we don’t care.

Maybe if English were more regular, it would be an easier language for foreigners to learn. Since English is rapidly becoming the Common Tongue of the whole world, maybe we owe it to the poor souls who have to learn the language to make it easier for them. On the other hand, the fact that English has at least one word from almost every other language may make it at least a little familiar to others. English is certainly a more interesting and dynamic language because of its propensity to borrow shamelessly from other languages and maybe that is part of the reason English is the primary international  language.


It’s Greek to Me

April 20, 2017

My favorite YouTube channel is, without question, the Langfocus  channel, created by Paul Jorgenson, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan. Paul is fascinated by language and he shares his knowledge and fascination in his videos. Paul makes videos about particular languages, language families and general concepts about language. Whatever the specific topic he covers, Paul’s videos are always interesting and informative.

Not too long ago, Paul made a video on the Greek language.

I have studied Koine or New Testament Greek a little bit and it is amazing to me just how little the language has actually changed over the centuries. I can tell there are some differences in grammar and vocabulary. Some of the verb inflections have changed a little and Modern Greek seems to have lost the dative case. I also notice that the middle and passive voices have combined into a mediopassive voice. The Greek word for speak has changed from λαλεω (laleo) to μιλεω (mileo) and dog from κυων (cuon) to σκυλος (skylos). I think that a speaker of Modern Greek could read the New Testament in its original Koine Greek without too much trouble and could even read Plato and Homer with varying degrees of difficulty. I suppose that the sounds or phonology of spoken Greek have changed quite a bit more than written Greek so a modern Greek transported back to Periclean Athens might have quite a bit of difficulty making himself understood in conversation, but perhaps not much more than speakers of related languages might have. Despite the changes, Modern Greek is recognizably the same language as the Greek spoken two thousand or more years ago.

Now look at this sample of English from about one thousand years ago.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
These are the first lines of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that was probably the first work of literature written in Old English. Here is a translation.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
It doesn’t seem to be the same language at all. If you look closely, some of the words are recognizable, “god cyning”= good king, but the grammar is very different and there are even some strange letters not used in Modern English. The text looks more like a dialect of German than the English we are familiar with. This is not too surprising. German and English originated on the same branch of West Germanic in the Germanic language family. There would probably be a closer resemblance between Modern English and German if it weren’t for the infusion of so many words from French and Latin after the Norman conquest. As it is, English is less of a strictly Germanic language, at least in vocabulary, and more of a hybrid between Germanic and the Romance languages. (Paul has a couple of videos on this)
Besides the unfamiliar words, you might notice that Modern English has lost the inflections that Old English had. This may also be due to the Norman conquest, or perhaps the earlier Danish or Viking invasions. Britain seems to have been something of a magnet for settlers during the tenth and eleventh centuries and since the Danes, Normans, etc had to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons who already lived there, they used a simplified form of Old English that developed into the language we speak today.
Here are the first lines of Chaucer’s Canturbury tales, written in Middle English around 1300.
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;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
And the translation:
When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought
Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout
Through every vein with liquid of such power
It brings forth the engendering of the flower;
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown
 Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds are making melody And sleep all night, eyes open as can be
So Nature pricks them in each little heart), On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers long to travel foreign strands
To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
This is recognizably English even if the spelling looks strange. There are some unfamiliar words and some differences in grammar. Chaucer can be read by an English speaker, but it is not easy. Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the most familiar examples of Early Modern English. They are essentially the same language spoken today, but even after a mere four hundred years they already seem quaint and old-fashioned, requiring a glossary to fully understand the text.
How is it that a language like Greek has changed slowly enough over the centuries that the Greeks can read the classics of Ancient Greek literature without too much difficulty while anything written in English more than about five hundred years ago is incomprehensible to the modern reader? Has Greek been unusually conservative or has English changed faster than most languages. Maybe it is both. Latin has changed quite a bit in the transition to the Romance Languages, particularly in the loss of the noun case system, loss of the neuter gender and changes in verb tenses. The vocabulary of the Romance Languages is still largely based on Latin and I think that a modern speaker of Italian or Spanish could still get the basic meaning of a Latin text.
Part of the reason might be because Greek has a much longer written history than English. Writing does tend to make a language more conservative, at least in its written form, particularly when the older version of the language is seen as somehow more pure while innovations are viewed as corruptions. This has long been the case in Greek where until recently it was common for Greek writers to use a formal and archaic version of Greek that resembled Ancient Greek more than the Greek actually spoken. (This is actually a common phenomenon found on many languages with a long literary history.) It seems the greatest changes in English came in the centuries after the Norman Conquest when French was the official language at court and English was mostly a language of illiterate peasants. Another possible reason for the continuity of Greek as opposed to the development of the Romance Languages from Latin might be that the Greek speaking Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire survived as a nation until 1453 while the Latin speaking Western Roman Empire broke up causing regional dialects to become separate languages.
Whatever the reasons, the relatively rapid development of English from its Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins to the useful language we speak today with its large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar has helped to make English the lingua franca of the modern world. I’m sure I’d rather speak Modern English than Anglo-Saxon, but I wish there had been a greater continuity over the centuries.
  • The Anglish Moot-They want to restore English to its native roots. The result of writing English without any Latin, Greek, or other words is truly weird and helps to demonstrate just how much English has borrowed from other languages.
  • Day of the Dead Languages (

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