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History of English Language

May 22, 2020
Gunther, thinking. What about?

Last night at about one, or so, I was awake, so I listened again to History of the English Language podcast by Kevin Stroud.  He has 137 episodes and he tracks the development of English from its Indo-European roots on the steppes of Asia perhaps 5000 years ago.  Our language has some ancient words in amongst the modern.  Sure, many of our words were borrowed from other languages, but a number have been passed along from the earliest tribal days on the steppes after the last ice age.  Old words tend to pertain, of course, to matters we have in common with our ancestors, such as “oxen,” “yoke,” and “mother” and “father.”  The newest words often pertain to technology, such as “fax” and “google.”  Mr. Stroud helps us stop and examine words, and for that I recommend his podcast.

He has a great speaking voice for his carefully researched podcast. I often fall asleep after the opening music or after the first few sentences. Takes me many tries to get through a 30- or 40-minute episode.

English is a Germanic language that owes a lot to Latin.  One cannot understand the history of the language without knowledge of the social and political climate from which it sprung.  Think of all the anomalies in spelling.  Many of these were contrivances of ancient scribes who were adept at using the alphabet to approximate the sounds of words in olden times.  Mr. Stroud notes that Old English, such as in Beowulf, would be unintelligible to a modern English speaker, but Middle English, such in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, while strange-sounding, can pretty much be understood, though perhaps not completely.  He poses the question, what kind of English did William Shakespeare write in?  Answer:  Modern.  Granted, Mr. Shakespeare used words we might find quaint, but his work can be easily understood today.

I found it interesting the notion that not all written languages have alphabets.  Chinese, for example, employs hundreds, if not thousands, of characters that are, in effect, pictures, while English gets by with a few more than two dozen letters.  He notes that languages that employ phonetic alphabets, like English, are much easier to learn to read and write.  The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics had scores of characters that only specially educated scribes could read and write.  Those who study linguistics may not learn anything new here, but the rest of us might.

My favorite episode is no. 120, describing the plague of 1348 that killed about a third of everyone in Western Europe. Turns out the wealthier and better-educated clerics and nobility were prone to becoming infected with a disease that killed its victims in less than a week. The aftermath of the “black death” led to a rise in economic status among the peasants who could feed and care for the survivors.

I wonder how the current plague will affect our citizens economic status?

I hope I’ve piqued your interest.  Just google the above podcast and give it a try.

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