Monday, February 25, 2008

Language Contact: Spanish on English

Language contact is unavoidable. When one group of people speaking one language enters/invades/coexists with another group of people speaking another language, it is inevitable that the two languages will influence each other, though these influences happen in different ways. Borrowing results when one language begins to incorporate foreign words or other linguistic elements into its vocabulary. Substratum influence refers to the linguistic influence exerted on the dominant language by a lesser language. For example, when a group of people migrate into another place, their language can become intrusive and can affect the dominant language. The Gauls, for example, abandoned their language in favor of Latin. A much less common phenomenon is that of the superstratum influence, in which the dominant language influences the lesser language. Adstratum describes the process in which two languages coexist as separate entities; for example, the Latin and Greek words used in science and medicine can arguably be called adstrata.

We've already seen a great deal of the influences other languages have had on the development of English. French, for example, had a massive influence that completely changed our vocabulary...with a much lesser degree the syntactic structure of the language (something that's rather hard to change; in Susan's post, you read how in legal language we have preserved some of the French syntax of placing the adjective after the noun: e.g. attorney general).

French's influence has subsided, but another Romance language is now affecting English. Spanish has historically influenced English, mainly in borrowings, but with the great wave of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, we have to wonder where this will lead. Will Spanish have an even greater influence on English? Will we adopt vocabulary, change syntactic structures, incorporate new ideas and phrases into our language? Or will immigrants adapt to English, their language eventually subsiding? Will the reversal happen? And will English at all affect Spanish? At present, it seems that all of the above is happening.

Spanish's influence happened long before today. The southwest brought along contact with Spanish during the early days of our country's settlement: the southwest (and then some) was, after all, Spain's territory.

Following is a (not at all comprehensive) list of some borrowings from Spanish to English, many of which are regional words. When a concept exists without a name to it, it is only natural that another word will be borrowed to correct the problem. English, finding itself with an insufficient vocabulary in its new environment, remedied the situation by adopting words from an already existing language.

AI here indicates words borrowed from an American Indian language.

alligator (from el largato)
avocado (AI)
barbecue (of Haitian Creole origin)
bravo (Spanish or Italian)
cacao (AI)
cannibal (AI)
canoe (AI)
chile/chili (AI)
chinchilla (AI)
chocolate (AI)
cigar/cigarette (AI)
coyote (AI)
desperado (butchered version of desesperado)
grandiose (Spanish or Italian)
guava (AI)
gusto (Spanish or Italian)
hammock (AI)
hurricane (AI)
iguana (AI)
jaguar (AI)
llama (AI)
maize (AI)
mambo (of Haitian Creole origin)
poncho (AI)
potato (AI)
savanna/savannah (AI)
tapioca (AI or Portuguese)
tomate (AI)
yucca (AI)

works cited:
Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish, Joseph J. Keenan
Introduction to Historical Linguistics, Anthony Arlotto

Sunday, February 10, 2008

eponyms: saturnine, mercurial, and martial

An eponym (from Greek, επωνυμος, eponymos: επι, epi, "upon, to" + ονομα (onoma, "name") is a word formed from a person's name. The Greek word, eponymoi, refers more specifically to gods or heroes after whom something has been named. I've already included one such example in the word "tantalize". Three other words -- saturnine, mercurial, and martial -- have all formed from the names of Roman deities.

to be saturnine is to be cold, slow to change, gloomy, dull, and sullen. Saturn, the father of Zeus and the god of agriculture and harvest, is described as one of the most complicated gods. The planet Saturn was the furthest observable planet during the Classical age. In astrology, people born under this planet receive the traits from the god: Saturn intensifies feelings of sadness.

*A bit of trivia: Saturday (dies Saturni, day of Saturn) is the only word in English that's retained its Roman name.

to be mercurial is to be volatile and erratic; in other words, characterized by rapid and unpredictable changes in mood. The term derives from the Roman god Mercury (Latin, Mercurius), "the patron god of circulation, the movement of goods, people, and words and their roles" (Oxford Classical Dictionary). The planet Mercury and the element mercury are also his namesakes.

We get the word martial from Mars, the Roman god of war...not surprisingly, martial means "associated with war".

Just a few examples of how ancient thought has affected our vocabulary today, and examples of the varying soures that have influenced our words.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

An Unauthorized Biography of the English Language, Part II

First of all, I apologize for the unexpected delay in getting to this next installment of the history of English. Everything from snowstorms to hospitalization (my father’s, not mine) to my laptop’s high-dive suicide has happened in the intervening weeks, but henceforth I hope I will be more reliable.

I left off just before the only date in British history that anybody remembers: 1066, when the Normans showed up. In my recent independent study I chronicled the influence of Norman French on English vocabulary and grammar, and I had hoped to borrow much of this entry from my final paper; all my research, however, is stored on my now-unresponsive laptop. Woe! I can’t go into as much detail as I’d like, but I’ll at least give a summary. (And if anyone is interested, I’d be happy to elaborate once I have my paper available. As I mentioned, I love nothing more than rambling on about Anglo-Norman.)

In 1066, English peasants and noblemen alike were still speaking the heavily Germanic Old English, with Scandinavian filtering in from the North. In The Story of English, Robert Crum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil note the similarity of modern Frisian to Anglo-Saxon, and go on to say that “if that linguistic cataclysm, the Norman Conquest, had not occurred, the English today might speak a language not unlike modern Dutch.” But, of course, William the Conqueror did his thing at the Battle of Hastings, and by the time the Normans were done with the language, it had changed beyond recognition.

The Normans themselves had Germanic roots; they were descended from Vikings who had settled modern-day Normandy in (if memory serves) the 600s AD, but they had long since assimilated to the local culture and customs. Upon William the Conqueror’s installation as King of England, French became the official language of the court. There would not be another English-speaking king in England for three hundred years.

During those three hundred years, French loan words poured into English at a dizzying rate. The estimates I remember most clearly are that upwards of 10,000 French words were adopted into English by the end of the Middle English period. 40% of English vocabulary, some say, is French in origin, making English almost an adopted Romance language. One of the most fascinating things about this period of galloping linguistic expansion is the way the new vocabulary was divided along class lines, and the way these words preserve, even now, a slice of the organization of medieval society.

At first, the French loanwords were largely military (as one might expect from a conquering language): castle (from chastel), battle, soldier, army, and the like. The role of French, though, soon began to change. The new king appointed his Francophone friends and allies to high positions in the nobility, and by the 1100s, anybody who was anybody spoke French. Besides being the language of the court, it was the language of the law, of the schools, of the church (alongside Latin), and of the cultural elite. Art and music, cuisine and couture (two French words themselves), legal terms, florid prose, luxury goods, courtly love—all of these were the provenance of French. To name a very few, terms like art, oboe, priest, religion, court, crime, jail, fashion, fur, jewel, letter, literature, male, and female are all French in origin. Sometimes even the grammar remains with us—ever wonder why we say “attorneys general” rather than “general attorneys?” Legal terms like this preserve the French practice of placing the adjective before the noun, which caught on nowhere else in the language.

Beneath the Gallic frippery, though, English chugged along as the language of the peasants and the uneducated, and it never lost hold of the most fundamental of words. High terms such as prince, baron, duke, royal, and noble aside, the French roi and reine never supplanted the king and queen (OE cyninge and cwene), even when these same rulers spoke no English (and Richard the Lionheart spent only six months on English soil at all.) A much-cited illustration of this basic class difference is the contrast between names for animals and names for meat. The cow, sheep, and swine which were cultivated by the English-speaking peasants retain Anglo-Saxon names to this day; the beef, mutton, and pork they produced are known by their French terms. The poor do the work, and the rich do the eating? Perhaps.

Despite three hundred years of marginalization—enough to completely eradicate a language—English never succumbed. French evolved into Anglo-French, fell from favor, and eventually receded. English reestablished itself, a testament to its adaptability and resilience. Why did English survive? King John’s loss of Normandy to France in 1204 was certainly a critical blow to the supremacy of French—cut off from the mainland, even the Norman nobles developed a sense of Englishness. The intermarriage of Norman nobles with English-speaking natives would have kept English current even in the households of the elite. I believe that the plague had a good deal to do with it as well; with a third of England’s population dead and the infrastructure in chaos, the noble-born would have been confronted with the necessity of fending for themselves for the first time. I bet the language of the tradesmen and peasants would suddenly have become much more interesting to them. Or perhaps English was just too adaptable and too stubborn to die. At any rate, it emerged from French rule a markedly broader and grammatically simpler language—cases were lost, for instance—but still unmistakably English.

Perhaps it is a good thing that I can’t get to my paper, or this might have gone on for twenty pages. Tune in next week for Shakespeare, the printing press, and why English spelling is so messed up!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Common Misconceptions

While reading the paper yesterday, I came across the sentence, "It was such a travesty that [blah blah blah]". This sentence became the inspiration for this most recent post. There are a good deal of words misused in English with startling frequency. Travesty is one such word. The actual definition of a travesty is a grotesque imitation of a literary or theatrical work, a kind of parody, and thus is not to be used interchangeably with tragedy, as it often is.

A personal pet peeve of mine is the rampant misuse of till. Even national chains advertise with, "Open Late, Saturday 'Til 8!" 'Til is a hypercorrection of till -- people assume that it derives from until, with the apostrophe replacing the un-, when in actuality, till was the original form, and until developed from that with the addition of the prefix un-, meaning "up to". This hypercorrection dates back as far the 18th century, with people assuming 'till was the shortened form, and as such it has become a somewhat accepted use -- but it's still incorrect.

Peruse, contrary to popular belief, doesn't mean to hastily glance at or skim -- in fact, its definition is quite the opposite. meaning to read thoroughly. The word derives from post-classical Latin peruti, perusitare, meaning "to use up, wear out" (branch I), as well as from Anglo-Norman peruser, "to examine" (branch II). Susan has added the following note:

Branch 1 is obsolete, but "peruse" was once used to mean "to use up." I don't know if the old sense has any connection with the current (although it's possible to wear out an inquiry by too frequent scrutiny, I suppose?) but Branch 2 comes from Anglo-Norman, which means that it likely had some roots in Latin as well. Yet another thing for which we have the French to thank-- I'll be posting more about that come Tuesday :D.

--happy foreshadowing-- :)