Fragment of Language Geekery

The title page to the 1611 first edition of th...

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Here’s a fragment of a post I never finished, where I geeked out about metaphors and changes to English, inspired by one of the books on The 20 Best Books for Language Lovers list.

In a section of The Unfolding of Language, by Guy Deutscher, on how metaphors enrich language, providing emphasis and impact, and then become so dead we don’t even know we’re speaking in metaphor any more, he has this sentence as an example:

Sarah was thrilled to discover that the assessment board had decided to make her barmy rival redundant, after she suggested that he had made sarcastic insinuations about his employers.

And then he gives us the original meanings of the words:

Sarah was pierced to un-cover that the sitting-by plank had cut off to make her full-of-froth person-from-the-river overflowing, after she carried-under that he had made flesh-tearing twistings about those who fold him. (pp. 124-125)

I had to read aloud to my husband the passage from Genesis that he reproduces in current English, from the King James version of the Bible circa 1600, the Wycliffe Bible circa 1400 and the AElfric translation from circa 1000. I can’t reproduce them here because I have no idea how to enter the special characters from Old English that we don’t use anymore, but it’s pretty amazing to see what has changed and what has not: words, spelling, order, plurals, pronouns. Just for an example, “I” was “ic” (pronounced itch) 1000 years ago. By 1400 it was spelled “I” but was pronounced ee as bee; the pronunciation later changed to ay as in day and only in the 18th century did it move to the eye we use now.

A surprising number of words were recognizable either immediately or after some thought: and, he, men, God in at least one variation; ofer = over, fram = from, cwaeth = quoth. And a bunch more might as well have been Greek: ofthuhte = displeased, gesceop = shaped, ansyne = face….

…And then I wandered off and did something else. But since I had written this much, why waste it?


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