history and culture home old english middle english separate or connect? heart and soul words goodnight bronchitis
'heart and soul' words
(vs a cardiac-and-spiritual vocabulary)
During its early years, from 700 to around 1,000 CE, Old English developed its grammar and vocabulary from available resources: the languages of the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, and the Celtic peoples who had previously encountered Latin from the Romans of Julius Caesar’s day. Daily village life was limited perhaps, in comparison to the court society to come in 500 years. But the language people had was certainly adequate to the task. Indeed, the great Beowulf epic, written around 1100, provides a rare glimpse at a highly developed literary tradition. Throughout the Old English period, ordinary people were every bit as capable of celebrating their experiences in words and turns of phrase as we are today.
And these are the words and turns of phrase that survive to the present in our poems, novels, and speech: words describing the things, feelings, and emotions we experience in everyday living. Native English speakers are closer to these words than to words that entered the language later from French and Latin.
It’s not that the words handed down from Old English are in any way better; it’s just that a much higher percentage of them are the names for what we do, what we see, even for parts of our bodies. They all share a relationship to a simpler, less complicated time. Old English had no words for many developments of later society, such as, for example, ‘sophistication’ or ‘machine.’ In these cases, and in tens of thousands of other cases, English took the additive solution and simply adopted the appropriate words as is, from French or Late Latin into what was by then Middle English.
There are many things, places, processes, and situations for which there never was a word in Old English. It wasn’t until the invention of gunpowder, for example, that people could conceive of terms such as bullet and cannon. But it’s hardly a matter of a relatively more sophisticated culture, if ‘sophisticated’ means ‘having a wide and complex understanding of the world.’ Bullet comes from the French boulette, ‘a little ball’ and the Latin form that gives us cannon signified nothing more complex than ‘a big, tube-shaped thingy.’
These new words could never totally replace the historically older forms of Old English closest to the heart and soul of the language. True to the spirit of English’s origins in multiple tongues, however, they could and did slide into use, enriching the language by offering new shades of meaning.
But as you compare Old English words to French and Latin words that moved in hundreds of years later, observe your feelings about each pair. Words like deed and motherly had been sung in poems and whispered in the ears of children for four or five hundred years, before accomplishment and maternal were ever heard. In our own lives, just as in the history of the English language, we wrapped our teeth and tongues around heart and next door and understand thousands of times before we ever heard of cardiac and adjacent and comprehend.
It would be interesting to know someday just how many times we hear a particular word in our lives. Short of recording every single waking minute though, that number seems out of reach. It’s very likely, however, that even if you say the word elevate every night before you go to bed for the rest of your life, you’ll never catch up to lift.
But it's not just a matter of frequency. There are other factors in the forging of heart and soul words too.
In addition to the link between heart and soul words and the people who helped us learn language, there is another unbreakable language bond—the bond to the contex--where, when, and with whom--we learn about living in our world.
The native Old English words come to our ears from our families, and not just as words but as the very stuff of language learning. The thrill of gaining mastery day by day, over the things in our little worlds binds those words and those people to us forever. Our first language experiences are from home, where we belong.
Assignments, conduct, library, and standardized testing, on the other hand (not to mention symptomatology and res ipsa loquitur), come to us, not at home, not from brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and grandparents, but from a different world, a world of outsiders we are trying to join. To the extent that the school world differs from our home world, and to the extent that our teachers judge us, while our families only loved us, our experience of building up skills in language will always be a more difficult and less desirable task.
If we sometimes feel that whole areas of our lives, such as the law and medicine, keep regular folks at arm’s length, this reflected history of the English language is the reason. There are far fewer words from Old English pertaining to medicine, for example, than words of French and Latin origin—the list of new drugs alone would be longer--but they are the first and the commonest words we come to know. They are the names for the very parts of ourselves that we speak and hear and read about as children. The later additions, by contrast, track the progress of the modern science of medicine instead. We learn and come to know the two kinds of words in very different ways.
Both kinds of words, both groups of people, and both ways of coming to know things are complementary; at the beginning of the 21st century, an education without all of them is unimaginable.