Thursday, 5 February 2009

De Factoid the Fourteenth: Hellitosis

When one thinks of the French (as may occasionally happen) one inevitably turns towards stereotypes (from Greek stereos, ‘solid’ + type), a fair few of which (in this writer’s mind at least) revolve around food, drink, light-hearted debauchery and, above all, garlic.

Debauchery as a word originated across the channel in Old French, desbaucher, ‘seduce from allegiance’, related to French bouche ‘mouth’ and those items of seduction issuing from it (and why one might call a trite statement “utter bosh!”) and was first recorded as used by John Milton (who on a similar theme is also the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded usage of depravity and extravagance) in his best known work, Paradise Lost (published in 1667) – an epic poem on the Biblical fall of Satan and his ‘debauchery’ of Adam and Eve.

Milton took words from Latin and French and ‘anglicised’ them (i.e. ‘made English’, from Anglo-, previously Angle/Engle: the tribe name of the Germanic settlers who founded what would become England – the ‘Land of the Angles’), greatly adding to the word-stock of our language. Without his inventions we could not be awe-struck, jubilant or find reading this enjoyable. In the opposite extreme one could not criticize, be dismissive or claim someone is embellishing the truth. One could not argue persuasively (truthfully, or with disregard to evidence - irresponsible and unprincipled as it may be), or be embittered if your opponent claimed a stunning victory. We could not even find the above enlightening were it not for Milton’s reshaping. And it is ‘shaping’ which lies at the very heart of poetry.

English was naturally inclined to absorb the words of other languages long before Milton. From 449 A.D., the invading tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes (Germanic tribes united in the driving out of the native Britons – the ancestors of the Welsh, Cornish and other Gaelic language speakers – from their new territory: see De Factoid the Eighth) formed between their numerous (yet similar) Germanic dialects (from Latin, dialectus ‘discourse’, related to Greek logos, ‘word’) a working creole (from French créole, ultimately from Latin creare, ‘to produce/create’: a term coined in the 16th century during the vast imperial expansions of Europe across the globe and the melding of new languages and peoples – also now referring to an ethnic group in the Southern States of the USA) which evolved into what is now recognised as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. The Saxon clans established themselves in several areas of England, forming the areas of Sussex (South-Saxons or Suthsax); Essex (the East-Saxons); Middlesex (those Saxons in the middle, unsurprisingly) and Wessex (the West-Saxon area which formed the main ‘literary’ type of Saxon under the leadership of Alfred the Great, of cake-burning fame). The formation of the language from several similar dialects provided the speaker with a growing array of possible words to choose from to show/bare his meaning (though initially only those of Germanic root with the possibility of some Latin rooted words from the Bible e.g. reveal, think ‘Revelations’), which swelled yet further with every language and people with which the new ‘English’ came into contact: allowing the speaker to convey/show/explain/reveal/illustrate/demonstrate/exhibit/portray/bare/display his meaning/thought/cognition/idea with far more subtle expressions of meaning. These possibilities proved invaluable for the Anglo-Saxon poet, whose craft was dependent upon the words of the language ‘stock-pot’ in the shaping of his verses.

The poetic tradition of Anglo-Saxon verse did not rely on rhyme; it was alliterative (i.e. ‘relying on a pattern of similar sounds and stresses to form lines’ from Latin, litera, ‘letter’, hence literature, literate, liturgy and literal: think the phrase ‘by the letter’) and was spoken or sung long before it was written down. This meant that a vast variety of words existed for ‘man’, ‘shield’, ‘spear’ etc., to aid in alliteration (with additions from other languages happily welcomed, by the poets at least). Consider the first line of the Old English ‘epic’ poem Beowulf (the name of the hero, coming from a kenning - see De Factoid the Twelfth - of beo, ‘bee’ + wulf, ‘wolf’: meaning bear):

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,

The ‘G’ sound (though sounding more like a ‘y’: gear is the Anglo-Saxon word which we still have in modern English as year) alliterates across the broken line in a rhetorical (see De Factoid the Sixth) effect known as parataxis (from the Greek meaning ‘place side-by-side’: think parallel). The need, therefore, to finds words for ‘spear’ which alliterated was vital to the structure of the line and the shaping of the poetry. The line translates approximately as ‘We the Spear-Danes, in years gone by…’ with the italicized Gar- meaning spear (my italics). The Anglo-Saxon word Hwæt at the beginning has no direct translation (the æ letter in the middle is called ‘ash’ and pronounced like the ‘a’ of cat: for other Old English letters see De Factoid the Twelfth) though was used as a marker by the speaker to gain the audience’s attention and is close, in this author’s mind, to the summons ‘OY!’ (which many editors seem to agree with via their inclusion of an exclamation point ! – which was not used in the English language until the 1400’s), though often transcribed more gracefully as ‘Lo’.

Like hwæt, significantly fewer of the hundreds of words in the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary now survive after the need for them has passed, but gar is one of them. It survives in the spear-head assault of breath at the front of every utterance of the debauching Frenchman: another corruption issuing from the mouth in a (quite literal) point – though this time with a continental fragrance (another of Milton’s words). I write, of course, of garlic.

Garlic, as a plant name, is a compound (i.e. ‘joining together’) of two Anglo-Saxon words. The latter -lic (from Anglo-Saxon, lēac) gives us the modern vegetable name, ‘leek’; the former gar- is (as we have seen) the Saxon for ‘spear’, and refers to the pointed cloves of the bulb (the French, ail – as is aioli, ‘garlic mayonnaise’ come from the Latin name Allium sativum). Clove comes, as a word, from Anglo-Saxon clufu meaning ‘bulbous’ and is related to word cloven and cleave (from Anglo-Saxon clēofan, ‘to cut asunder, split’). The cloven hoof of goats and other animals is related to these words and has been used solely to refer to animals since the 1800’s (with cleft – as in cleft-lipped – also coming into use). In Arabic tradition (and some early Christian traditions), garlic is said to have grown from the Devil’s cloven left footprint (and onions from the right), suggesting the properties of the plant to be wholly satanic (another word coined by Milton). That said thought, the popular myth of garlic as a ward against vampires (a word coming from Eastern Europe and ultimately, perhaps, deriving from Turkish uber, ‘witch’: consider Russian: upýr) may stem from the reality of the plant’s strong antibacterial properties and medicinal effectiveness. Spear as a word may be loosely related to Latin, sparus (‘hunting spear’), though is more likely to have come into English via Old Norse spjọr.

The Norse language – coming from Norway with the invading Vikings (between the eighth and ninth centuries A.D.) – gave the Saxon poets another word (or rather the surviving word) for spear (though I admit this might have been little consolation were they on the receiving end of said weapon) amongst a whole array of new words and a new letter: ‘K’. Before the arrival of the Norsemen ‘k’ was not used and the Anglo-Saxon word King, for example, was written cynning. But victory in battle brings linguistic change (see De Factoid the Fourth) and ‘King’ it became. There was no hard ‘sk’ sound in Old English, words like ‘skill’ came across with the Vikings, and there is no word containing a ‘sk’ or ‘k’ which one might look up in a good Dictionary (try it!) which is directly Anglo-Saxon without Norse alteration (look = OE locian) or a borrowing from a foreign language after the Norse invasions (and often much later, as an imported product of the Empire).

Before the arrival of the Norse ‘k’ (though the letter itself, a rune - see De Factoid the Twelfth - may have come to Norse from elsewhere) the letters ‘sc’ were in use together, but they formed the sound ‘sh’, as is evident from the Anglo-Saxon word scip (‘ship’) and the now defunct Anglo-Saxon word for poet (which would, had it survived, given a new meaning to ‘popping down the shops’): the scop.

Scop is a word rooted in the heart of language, in the Indo-European (see De Factoid the Ninth) word *(s)kep-, ‘cut, hack’ from which grew Proto-Germanic *skapiz ‘form, order’ and its Germanic cognates. One must understand that the tales told – a more appropriate, Old English word than the Greek poem – by scops were told around campfires to bands of drunken men. They were boasts to friends; tales of monsters and conquests (on and off the field) and insults to enemies. From the Germanic root we get the word scoff, ‘to mock’ (the sense of over-eating coming from Afrikaans schoft, ‘a quarter of a day’: hence any one of the four main meals), and the Norse equivalent of the scop – the skald – gives us the word scold, ‘to insult or check with words’. As well as such banter (see De Factoid the Fifth), the Germanic scop/skald served a higher purpose. Like Milton they enriched the English language beyond measure. The Saxon scop was a maker, a carver of words, and in the name is buried their legacy as a modern day word: shape.

De Factoid the Fifteenth: coming soon…