Until I read The Adventure of English, by Melvin Bragg, I took my native tongue for granted. Or worse, became frustrated by its many forms of “there.” But now I see how wonderfully expressive our language is and what a cliffhanger history it’s had.
English originated in the Dutch province of Friesland, where the lingo still sounds like ours. It migrated to what we now call Great Britain, where it marginalized the Celtic languages.
English was gaining popularity when catastrophe struck on my birthday, October 14, 1066. William of Normandy defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. French became England’s official language for the next 300 years.
English barely survived by going underground and absorbing new words from the invader’s language. This ability to borrow words is English’s greatest strength. Its sturdy grammar structure enabled it to absorb other languages without being overwhelmed.
Not only were French words invading the vocabulary: Latin was leaking in. Latin, after all, was the language of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church. The Bible only came in one edition in those days Ð Latin. The English common folk couldn’t comprehend it. Most of their priests couldn’t read it.
This was intolerable to English reformers. They dedicated their lives to publishing an English Bible and many died in the struggle. But they succeeded in translating the Bible into English and it became an instant bestseller.
No one loved the English Bible more than the Puritans. They couldn’t wait to escape England and start their own Bible-centered community. Not that this would be easy. Their first American colony vanished without a trace. Their second colony at Plymouth also seemed doomed. Half of the 144 colonists died within a few weeks. The rest were planning their return to England when a Native American emerged from the forest and greeted them in their native tongue.
Squanto had been kidnapped by English sailors fifteen years before. He was taken to London and taught English so he could serve as an interpreter in the New World. Squanto somehow escaped on an outbound ship.
What were the odds the Puritans would meet (perhaps) the only English-speaking native on the continent? Squanto saved their lives by instructing them in English on how to farm and fish in the new land.
One of the Purtitan’s shortcomings, however, was their unwillingness to learn Squanto’s language. (They wanted everyone to be able to read the English Bible.) As a result, very few Native American words entered the English language. The Puritans only grudgingly used native terms for phenomena they had never encountered. Thus, we acquired one of the tastiest words in the English language Ð turkey.
The moral of this story is that languages survive and grow by being inclusive of other cultures. May we all be as open-minded as our brilliant language.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.