Johnson: what might have been

THE English poet William Barnes (pictured) is no household name. But that is almost a shame, because he represented a strand that we don’t otherwise see much of: English purism. Imagining what would have happened if he had been more influential makes for an interesting thought experiment.

Any language in contact with other languages borrows words. And English has always been, of course, a master borrower. A west Germanic language brought over with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, it first took a lot of Norse from invading Vikings, then even more French from the Norman conquerors of 1066. When the English later themselves became conquerors, they promiscuously took on words from languages all around the world. And as science and medicine advanced, English writers took to coining words from Greek and Latin roots.

Barnes, who wrote poems in his Dorset dialect, didn’t like this. He thought the English showed no self-respect when they reached to classical languages to make learned words. He deplored the loss of old Anglo-Saxon words like inwit, earthtillage and bodeword, replaced by conscience, agriculture and commandment. And where terms had to be coined for new things, Barnes wanted them to be created from Anglo-Saxon roots: he recommended sun-print as a calque for the Greek-derived photograph (“light-writing”).

Johnson knows of none of Barnes’s coinages that made their way into the lexicon. But what if they existed? What would English look like? A speaker of German or the other German languages doesn’t have to speculate. An English-native speaker of German, Dutch, Danish or Icelandic is confronted daily by words that are incredibly concrete and earthy. If translated into English, depending on the subject, they are sometimes even mildly shocking.

Begin with the German words that seem amusingly over-literal to an Anglophone. The vacuum cleaner is a Staubsauger (“dust-sucker”), the television a Fernseher (a “far-seer”) and gloves are Handschuhe (“hand-shoes”)—all the typical subject of giggles for a first-year student of the language. But as the learner gets more advanced, things get really striking.

Children come into the world still attached to the Mutterkuchen, or “mother-cake”, though this German word is being replaced by Plazenta. The first sniffles in Germany will result in your getting something at the chemist’s to dry up your Schleimhaut—your “slime skin”, or mucous membranes. If problems reside lower down, they might affect your Zwölffingerdarm, or “twelve-finger intestine”. If you’re sure you don’t have one of those, you do: the duodenum is the same thing, only named via Latin (because it is about twelve finger-breadths wide). Every adult, even in sexually open northern Europe, grows Schamhaar (“shame hair”) in the region of the Schambein (“shame bone”), which we know as pubic hair and the pubic bone. And finally, the less said of Brustwarzen (“breast-warts”), the better: German, like other Germanic languages, uses the same word for warts and nipples.

It’s not all shocking, though. The Germanic languages are often poetic in a way that might bring to mind the kennings (like “whale-road” for sea) of “Beowulf”. A midwife in Danish is a jordmor or “earth mother”. The same person in Icelandic is a ljósmóðir or a “light mother”, chosen in a national contest as the prettiest word in the language. (Geirvarta, or “nipple”, was the ugliest.) Who could fail to be charmed by the sommerfugl or “summer-bird”, Danish for “butterfly”? I suspect many Jewish readers happily shared a recent Slate article about the origin of Jewish surnames, because it revealed how pretty many of them are: Morgenthau, Rosenzweig and Kirschbaum, behind their rough Germanic look, are nothing less than “morning dew”, “rose branch” and “cherry tree” in German.

All these transparent, sometimes hyper-literal words might make English’s Germanic cousins seem direct to a fault. (Breast-warts, indeed.) But English is actually the odd one out, in having jettisoned so much of its native vocabulary to borrow from classical languages. English isn’t unique this way; Hindi gets highfalutin words from Sanskrit, and Persian from Arabic, for example. But the default thing for a language to do is to build big words from its own native roots.

Borrowing is normal, but it seems almost a shame that English admixed so much. To get a sense of what it would look like had the Battle of Hastings gone the other way, a few writers have tried purging their English. See, for example, a humorous attempt by Poul Anderson to explain atomic theory, or “Uncleftish Beholding”, using only Anglo-Saxon roots and words. (Hydrogen, for example, is waterstuff—just as it is Wasserstoff in modern German.)

Leaving a language alone to borrow and change as its users see fit is usually the best idea. Speakers themselves, rather than official language academies, are best at deciding what to import and what to coin from native roots. Germans adopted Fernseher for “television”, but have mostly rejected Fernsprecher (“far-speaker”) in favour of Telefon. Who is to say that they’re wrong? But academies can guide the process by making suggestions for native words; in a country like Iceland, they are successful, since Icelanders are fiercely proud of the language and prefer native-built words. No language is an island, but Icelandic comes close.

English is the opposite: a global language for hundreds of years now, and a mongrel for a thousand. Flexible, growing, always being renewed, but never again to be “pure”.


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