Tag Archives: language evolution

The English language: a hodgepodge from the start

At Bede's World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

At Bede’s World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Set among the call centers and storage facilities of Jarrow in the northeast of England is a farm, of sorts.

There are pigs, sheep and goats here. Some are ancient varieties, more popular 1,400 years ago than they are today. Like a shaggy-haired pig described my guide, John Sadler, as “half a ton of very grumpy animal … only interested if you feed it, or if you fall in — in which case you are food.”

A pig at Bede's World: "Half a ton of very grumpy animal." (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A pig at Bede’s World: “Half a ton of very grumpy animal.” (Photo: Patrick Cox)

The animals are part of a re-creation of an Anglo-Saxon village, with timber-framed buildings and turf-covered sheds. The farm is called Gyrwe, Old English for Jarrow. It’s part of a museum called Bedesworld.

Even with jets flying overhead and container ships unloading nearby, Bede’s World brings to life a time and place when the English language was in its infancy. The monk who Bede’s World is named after, the Venerable Bede, lived in the monastery next door in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

“He’s famous as a writer and a teacher,” says Sadler, the living history coordinator at Bede’s World. “And he has this keen interest in history and language.”

Bede wrote an ecclesiastical history of the nation at the time.

“He’s the first person to actually write down who it was that actually came to the British Isles,” says linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors:The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. “He talks about the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, and discusses the range of languages that were spoken around the country.”

These languages arrived in Britain after the Romans had left. The newcomers found themselves in a place already heaving with languages — various Celtic tongues, as well as bits and pieces of languages left behind by Roman mercenaries who came from all over the empire.

Which explains why English, from its very beginnings, has been a mongrel tongue — a Frisian word here, a Latin one there, and so on. Pure English? It never existed.

These waves of migrants also helped form the dialects that you can still hear in Britain. On average, you can hear a different dialect every 25 miles you travel.

Crystal says it all goes back to those original days when people from one part of northern Europe settled in one part of England, and people from another part of northern Europe settled nearby.

“You only have to settle on the other side of a river or a mountain range,” says Crystal. “Before you know it, within a few years you’re starting to speak in a slightly different way. After a hundred years, it’s very different.”

Bede's Chair, St Paul's Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Bede’s Chair, St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is one of the reasons Bede’s writings are so valuable: they’ve helped linguists trace the origins of today’s dialects. Of course, that early migration didn’t stop. Vikings, Normans and, much later, Indians, Irish and Jamaicans have all left their stamp on Britain’s dialects.

Inside Bede’s church, there’s a small section that dates back to the seventh century. John Sadler shows me his favourite item there is the chair the Bede supposedly sat on.

“It’s actually impossible to say whether it’s original or…a copy,” says Sadler with a shrug.

If it’s a copy, so be it. The monk who may — or may not — have sat on it was documenting a language that itself copied, and liberally borrowed and stole, from many other languages.

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The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

Julie Barlow (Photo: Veronica Louis)

The Spanish that’s spoken here in the United States is a far cry from the language that came into being on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman invasion.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau wanted to trace that Point-A-to-Point-Z history. So they moved from their native Canada to the United States, and began researching the book that became The Story of Spanish.

They found a language in flux—not just now, in the US, but in flux since its beginnings. No language, of course, ever stops changing, but Spanish has been a faster mover than many. History decided that. The Iberian Peninsula took in wave upon wave of invasion—from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors. When large-scale migration into Spain ended, Spanish-speakers migrated away, mainly to what became Latin America. There, the language was pushed and pulled in many directions—in most places it was spoken only by a minority elite. Only after independence in countries like Mexico and Peru did Spanish become a lingua franca.

Alfonso X of Castile (Photo via Wikipedia)

As Julie Barlow told me, Arabic in particular had a huge influence on Spanish. Not just through loanwords, though Spanish has many of them. (Albaricoque: Apricot. From Arabic al-barqouq (البرقوق) meaning plum or early-ripe; ojalá: I hope, I wish that… From law šha’ allāh: God willing.) Moorish rule over Spain was waning by the time King Alfonso Tenth of Castile decided that he’d use language to forge power.

Afonso—who later became known as Alfonso The Wise—decided to incentivize people into speaking Spanish. He wanted make Spanish prestigious and interesting. But when he looked around for what was prestigious and interesting in Spain, it was all in Arabic. So, Alfonso launched a huge project of translating Arabic classics into Spanish—which meant the rules of the language had to be defined, so that the translators had coherency and consistency.

“It becomes a trend in Spanish to define the language, the vocabulary and the spelling rules,” said Barlow. That was “very avant-garde in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

Excerpt from "Epitafio épico del Cid," circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from “Epitafio épico del Cid,” circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barlow and Nadeau are language history veterans. They previously co-authored a book called The Story of French. So it’s no surprise they often compare Spanish to French, two romance languages that took very different paths.

“French is a language that is controlled by one country. Paris sets the rules,” said Barlow. “Spanish is completely different. Spain was overcome by its own empire and it very quickly in its history learned to share control of the language.” So the Royal Academy in Madrid has created standards for the Spanish language by taking into account consideration all the Spanish that’s spoken throughout the Spanish-speaking world. “It’s very much a language about sharing control and diversity.”

Barlow and Nadeau’s experience of United States comes very much from a Canadian perspective. They lived in Phoenix, Arizona where they enrolled their daughters in predominantly Hispanic schools. They observed the widespread phenomenon in the US of non-native English-speaking parents urging their kids to learn English and forget their Spanish.

“It’s like a zero-sum game,” said Barlow. These immigrants “are convinced that they can’t teach their kids Spanish of they won’t make it in the English United States. This was eye-opening for us, because it’s the opposite in Canada. Everybody wants to learn French—French is an officially recognized language and it will get you a job in the government. In the United States, there’s a similar idea among white people who want their kids to learn Spanish. But the perfectly bilingual Spanish-speaking kids are hearing from the parents. ‘English, English, English! Forget your Spanish.’”

Here’s a report on The Story of French from an previous podcast:

In the pod, I mentioned PRI’s Global Reporting Fund. Here’s where you can contribute.

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Are Europeans Still Tribal?

This week sees the culmination of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. At the same time, Europe’s political leaders are holding a Euro crisis summit.

Those two events got us thinking about tribes. Are Europeans made up of many national and linguistic tribes? Or have they merged into a continental megatribe?

There are almost as many theories about tribes as there are tribes themselves. Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in Britain says that 80,000 years ago, the world was full of little hunter-gatherer societies, or bands of up to 500 people.  In time, those bands gave way to tribes, “that were just bands of bands.”

“Tribes gave way to chiefdoms, as tribes came together and co-operated,” said Pagel. Chiefdoms eventually gave way to nation states.  Finally, nation states have partially given way to supranational organizations, such as the European Union.

But even if we’ve moved beyond our tribal period, the word tribe sticks. Nations can be tribes, especially when there’s a soccer tournament on.

“We do these bizarre things like wear silly matching shirts or paint our faces in the colors of our national flag,” said Pagel. “Psychologically, we’re indistinguishable from our tribe. Our tribe really is just a part of our family.”

The fans of Ireland at Euro 2012 didn’t care that their team lost all its games. To them, singing as one was more important.

But would these fans—or any others from EU nations—sing like that for Europe? Of course not, says Irish essayist Colm Toibin.

“Even though in countries like Spain and Ireland, where Europe has…really helped people in their lives, nobody loves Europe,” said Toibin. “Europe has failed to make Europeans feel European.”

People feel a part of their family genetically, and they feel a part of their national tribe almost genetically. But to try to impose a European identity on people because it may be good policy or because it encourages peace “doesn’t actually work for people,” said Toibin.

It’s a problem for the leaders of Germany, France and others at their Euro summit this week. Mistrust among the national tribes is running high. But the differences aren’t nearly so wide as when the tribes went to war in 1939.

It’s even possible for people who may think they are different to discover that they belong to same tribe.

Take writer AS Byatt. Her home in the north of England is now also home to hundreds of thousands of south Asians. Cities like Bradford are now largely Asian. But “they speak my language,” said Byatt.  “I’m a Yorkshire woman. And I go up there, and the taxi driver looks very Asian and he begins to speak to me in Yorkshire.  And that’s my culture, I’m all right with it.”

Accents are one thing. Languages are another, a vestige of our tribal beginnings, according to biologist Mark Pagel.

“We’re the only species that can’t communicate with other members of our own species,” said Pagel. “No other animal is like that. You pick a gorilla up and plunk it down anywhere else on Earth where gorillas are found, and it will know what to do, how to speak and so on. But we don’t.”

And so at the Euro summit in Brussels, Frau Merkel will speak German, Monsieur Hollande will speak French. But they will nonetheless try to overcome their tribal differences.

If you’ve watched any of the games involving Italy, and wondered why their fans sing are so fond of the White Stripes’ song Seven Nation Army, all is revealed in this pod from the archives:


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