By Dan Ford

Roman conquerors considered the remote islands that would become the British Isles to be worthless. Who would ever want to live way off up there in the fog and terrible weather? Who would want to associate with those smelly peasants known as Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They certainly did not deserve the lofty Latin tongue that the Romans forced on every other place they conquered: Italy, Spain, France, Romania, etc. “Let them go on speaking that ugly guttural garbage, that throaty Germanic language they spit out like bad food.”

At its root, English (Angle-ish) is not Latin at all. It is German. The Latin words we speak today came through the French when William the Conqueror invaded those Germanic tribes in 1066 and subdued the islands. Now, this is an oversimplification, but here is more or less what happened to the language:

French is predominately Latin with a little localized twist. After the successful invasion of “Angle-Land,” there were a lot of Anglo-Saxon, Germanic-speaking women available. Their husbands and fathers had been killed in the war. The French soldiers asked the ruling French magistrates if they could marry these women and buy cheap land there to set up farms. Yes, was the answer. Then the soldiers asked permission to teach their wives French. Absolutely not—no way these people deserve to speak our beautiful language. So, the most useful words from both languages kind of merged and that’s how English was born. That is also why we have more words than any other language—over 600,000—because the entire French-Latin vocabulary was dumped on Anglo-Saxon German. With so many words, we can say anything we want to in a variety of ways.

French was the language of the courts and of high society. It was the sophisticated way of speaking and writing. Even today, when we want to sound smart, even though we are not, we tend to use the French-Latin words in our vocabulary like “interrogate” for the Germanic “ask,” “perspiration” for the Germanic “sweat,” “discombobulated” for the Germanic “shook up,” etc. And, we still use RSVP, an abbreviation for French words to say, “Let us know,” Germanic words. I heard a linguist cite some other famous Germanic words in English: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” all Germanic words. “I smoked it but I didn’t inhale,” completely Germanic. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” nothing French about that.

Anyway, the point is that we have a couple of merged languages at our disposal and we continue to add and drop words and expressions. I remember when the word “bad” meant “good” and “ride” meant car, as in “Man, that’s a bad ride.” Some words now mean the opposite of what they used to mean. “Let” at one time meant disallow instead of allow. Hamlet tells his companions that if anyone tries to stop him he will kill them. He says it this way in Elizabethan English, “I’ll make a ghost of him who lets me.”

Our language is as odd as it is fascinating. But we love it enough to call it our Mother Tongue.

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