The strange history of the English language

Linguist David Crystal, author of "The Story of English in 100 Words," analyzes vocabulary from "shellacking" to "Twittersphere."

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    The first word – ever – in the English language? The closest we'll come to knowing, says linguist and author David Crystal, is "roe," a kind of deer.
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Thanks to Julie Andrews, we know that a doe is a deer, a female deer. Animal fans might also be aware that roe is a species of deer.

Here's one you haven't heard: "roe" may be the closest that we've ever come to the first English word. That's the verdict of British linguist David Crystal, one of the world's top word experts.
 
His evidence? The ankle-bone of a roe deer that was discovered decades ago in Norfolk, England. Someone wrote what seems to be the equivalent of the word "roe" on it back around the fifth century or so, possibly to show where it came from. The bone seems to have been used in a game, so maybe the word helped people figure out the role it would play. (I like to imagine that kids back then played "Chutes and Roes" or "Monopo-Cave." But I digress.)

From roe and its kin flowed millions of words. In his lively new book "The Story of English in 100 Words," Crystal begins with the "first word" and works his way through the centuries from "bridegroom" to "skunk" to "Muggle."
 
In an interview, Crystal talks about our language's promiscuous borrowing of words from other languages, explains why brand-spanking-new words like Twittersphere fascinate him, and tells me I really need to get a life when it comes to being a language cop.
 
Q: Among languages, what makes English stand apart? What can it do that most other languages can't or don't?
A: Every language expresses a unique vision of the world, and I find them all equally interesting. Having said that, English does have a larger vocabulary than other languages, because of its history as the primary language of science and its global reach.
 
Q: Now to the reverse question: What can most other languages do that English cannot? In what ways is English distinctively limited?
A: There are innumerable differences. One notable feature is that English doesn't have much of a system for expressing relative social status.
 
Many Oriental languages, for example, have a complex system of honorifics, identifying the relative status of the participants in an interaction. English is much more egalitarian in this respect.
Another example is the use of a single second-person pronoun form, "you." Most languages make a distinction between a singular and a plural (and sometimes other) forms.
 
Q: Is English more likely than other languages to accept words from other countries?
A: Yes. It is simply a matter of language contact, and English - because of its political history -- has been in contact with more languages than any other, notably in its period of colonial expansion. Several hundred languages have "loaned" their words into English. And there is a general tolerance of loans which not all languages share.
 
Q: Despite all the anti-immigrant fervor that America has had back into the 19th century, we haven't gotten to the point where anyone gets upset about foreign words sneaking into the language.
How did we (Americans and more widely, people who speak English) end up not having as much of a purity streak as, say, the French?
 
A: Difficult to say. Certainly there was never much support for the notion of an Academy in Britain, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Dr. Johnson put his finger on it when he said that there was something stubborn about the British temperament, so that if someone suggested a set of rules, the British would be sure to go out of their way to break them! And I imagine the same temperament exists in America.
 
But these days the fact that English is a global language, with its remarkable diversity, makes it impossible for any notion of an Academy to exist.
Q: You mention lots of cool word phenomena, like portmanteaus and reduplication. Of all the ones that you mention, what's your favorite? And could you describe what it is for our readers?
 
A: Linguists don't really have favorites. Or, put it another way, every word to me is a favorite.
But I especially like to see new words, especially those which take the language in new directions and display real ingenuity or playfulness.
 
The final chapter mentions "twittersphere." I've been hugely impressed by the way that people have developed an extraordinary range of words beginning with "tw"  -- an unusual consonant combination in English. Online twictionaries illustrate the range.
 
Q: Of the 100 words, which one that has the most unusual or unexpected origin?
A: Again, difficult to say, as so many of them have fascinating origins. But if I had to choose, then it would be 'matrix', widely known today for its scientific and science-fictional usage - but originally, from the Bible. The first use of "matrix" is in William Tyndale's translation of the Gospel of St. Luke, where it is used in the sense of "womb."
 
Q: Every word expert seems to have a usage or two that drives him/her crazy. What are yours?
 
A: Not every word expert. Only the popular pedants.
No usage drives me crazy. On the contrary: every usage, no matter how bizarre or nonstandard, fascinates me, as it tells me something about the way language is evolving.
 
Q: All right, but some words are so egregious, especially if I believe they are. What do you think of my pet peeve -- the use of "grow" in a sense like "grow the economy"?
A: I think you should worry about more important things!
 
But to be serious, there's nothing new about the transitive figurative sense of "grow." "Grow knowledge," for example, is found in the early 19th century. "Grow the economy" is simply one of the more recent examples of this construction.
 
Q: You mention a few words that aren't used much anymore, like "fopdoodle," another name for a fool.
What are some that make people regret they aren't still around when they hear them? And which ones would you like to see make a comeback?
 
A:  People love fopdoodle when they hear of it, presumably because of its appealing sound.
I don't have any particular desire to see words making a comeback. They are of their era, after all, and that is their identity -- they form part of the linguistic color of a period.
 
But it's always possible for a word to return, if enough people want it to. "Shellacking," for example, meaning a beating or a defeat, arrived in the late nineteenth century, and had quite a popular slang use during the midyears of the twentieth. But then it died away, until Barack Obama used it a few months ago. Whether it will have a long second life remains to be seen.

Recommended: Famous opening lines: Take our literature quiz

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.

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