Tag Archives: history of english

World War I and shell shock

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry.

New words that appear, words that entered common parlance, and words that gained new meanings during this war include: air raid, antiaircraft gun, ack-ack, aerobatic (used to describe pilots), ace (as in a pilot), tank, blimp, sector, bridgehead, dogfight, enlistee, fighter (as in an airplane), strafe, gadget (which existed earlier in naval slang but came into more general use now), machine-gun, mustard gas, barrage, storm-troops, dud, slacker, trench foot, Potemkin village, Soviet, u-boat, press officer, cootie (a body louse), shell shock, draftee, ROTC, war bride, and, interestingly, post-modern.

A series of films made in 1917, and preserved by the Wellcome library, show a variety of manifestations of what they meant by shell shock. You can find them here on YouTube or here on the Wellcome Library’s site with a list of what the clips include (follow either of these links to avoid stills from related videos about horrific physical injuries). The films don’t depict vivid physical injuries, though some depict physical manifestations such as spasms and frozen limbs.

Many didn’t believe the condition was real, or ascribed it to cowardice. The injury speaks to the particular and new kind of brutality that men endured in trench warfare. Several suffer from uncontrollable spasms while walking “following spinal concussion after burial”; another patient suffers from amnesia except for an uncontrollable response to the word “bombs” (see at 2:00 above). Here’s a further discussion of the injury from the BBC’s British History site.

According to the OED, the word first appears in a British medical journal in 1915. It’s in quotation marks, which would seem to indicate that while it existed verbally, no appropriate medical term was available. The book Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, first published in 1925, preserves a lot of language that came out of the war; its entry on shell shock says that after the war the term “psycho-neurosis” was adopted by the medical community to define the condition. This is a good example of how different communities deploy different terms even if they define identical objects or concepts, because words only make sense when they are embedded within the semantic associations provided by a community’s web of existing discourse. Later terms for the injury include combat stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It undoubtedly afflicted soldiers from earlier wars; according to this PBS Frontline documentary about the term’s history, after the U.S. Civil war it was called “Soldier’s Heart.”

See: Baugh & Cable 300-01; Hughes, A History of English Words 376-82; Bryson, Made in America 296-297; Lerer ch. 18 (a chapter devoted to language and war, though mostly from WW2 and after); Cable, “British History Timeline,” and this page off of it.

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Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle and the French of England

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry for teaching this Spring. Let me know what you think!

Written by a few different writers, this was finished around 1300, or perhaps a bit after. It’s a history written in verse. The text keeps some aspects of Old English metrical rhythm but not others: each verse is in two half lines, but the verses are not in four beats, and they do not consistently alliterate. The text uses both thorn (þ) for “th” and yogh (ȝ) for “g,” as ME would through the fifteenth century.

Linguistically, its dialect tells us that it comes from Gloucestershire (in the west of England on the Severn, just at the foot of Wales). One dialectal characteristic is that it uses southern “h” forms (“hor” for PDE “their,: “hii” for PDE “they,” etc.) for plural pronouns, as opposed to the “th” form common to the old Danelaw regions that would spread to become more common in Later Middle English. Another southern form here that would disappear is the “o” in “nome” and in “lond” and “engelond”: these would become “name” and “land.” Even more local is the form “ido” for PDE “done”: there is no final -n. PDE “f” here is voiced and spelled “v” (as in “vor,” “vaire”).

The section about William the Conqueror comments on the language of the ruling class of England:

Willam þis noble duc • þo he adde ido al þis
Þen wey he nom to londone • he & alle his
As king & prince of londe • wiþ nobleye ynou
Aȝen him wiþ uair procession • þat folc of toune drou
& vnderueng him vaire inou • as king of þis lond
Þus com lo engelond • in to normandies hond
& þe normans ne couþe speke þo • bote hor owe speche
& speke french as hii dude atom • & hor children dude also teche
So þat heiemen of þis lond • þat of hor blod come
Holdeþ alle þulke speche • þat hii of hom nome
Vor bote a man conne frenss • me telþ of him lute
Ac lowe men holdeþ to engliss • & to hor owe speche ȝute
Ich wene þer ne beþ in al þe world • contreyes none
Þat ne holdeþ to hor owe speche • bote engelond one
Ac wel me wot uor to conne • boþe wel it is
Vor þe more þat a mon can • be more wurþe he is
Þis noble duc willam • him let crouny king
At londone amidwinter day • nobliche þoru alle þing
Of þe erchebissop of euerwik . . . . (7532-7550)

The chronicler says that “Vor bote a man conne frenss • me telþ of him lute”: “For unless a man knows French, people speak little of him.” After the Conquest, French became the language of the aristocracy and the clerical elites. The writer seems to be upset–or at least thinks it odd–that the “English” don’t speak their own language, “Þat ne holdeþ to hor owe speche,” though “þe more þat a mon can,” the more that a man knows, the better. French, the monk implies, is learned, a self-conscious, deliberately gained knowledge–not a first language. As Barber, Beal, & Shaw note, “There are signs that English became the day-to-day language of even aristocrats within a generation or two; the literary and courtly French employed in England (known as Anglo-Norman) was probably essentially a second language within a few generations” (145).

This moment around 1300 was the high point for the French of England. How would the language wane? Crystal notes “conscious change in American and British English is usually in the direct of those linguistic forms which are widely and openly recognized as prestigious. . . . This kind of change is often initiated by people from the lower middle class or upper working class–especially women. . . . By contrast, subconscious change is usually in the opposite direction, away from overt prestige. It is often initiated by working-class men” (CEL 343). A similar dynamic seems to be at work during the century around 1300: while social and literary customs consciously preserved and taught the French of England, they would be whittled away by the traumas of the coming half-century–the famine, the weak rule of Edward II, the Hundred Years War, and especially the Black Death–that allowed the language of the lower classes, the men and women who tilled, milled, smithed, and worked wood–to gain in linguistic and political authority.

See: Cambridge History to English and American Literature 1.16, §1; Barber, Beal, & Shaw 145-46 (with a translation of this passage); Bennett & Smithers text XI. On the power of French on English see Barber, Beal, & Shaw 150-60; Crystal, CEEL 30,41, 46-7; Millward & Hayes 145-47, 192-97; and later in the timeline under Trevisa.

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On the Chancery Standard

And here is a second new entry for the HEL Timeline. Both of these have been exercises in wandering down some new byways: if you have any comments, please append them!

The Chancery (the office of the chancellor) had existed for at least a century and a half before this, but in 1377 a house was officially deeded to the Keeper of the Rolls to house the rolls and the business of keeping these official records. It stayed there until the PRO was built on the site between 1845 and 1895. The “Chancery English” that the office used–though it was variable–can be used as a bellwether for the later medieval development of English. What was the Chancery, and what does its use of English show us?

As deadening as it can be to read, the language of bureaucracy is the language of state (and, today, corporate) power. The growth of the Chancery signifies how English rises from being the third-rate language of the hoi-polloi to attain this status. As Fisher explains, “until the end of the fifteenth century, Chancery comprises virtually all of the national bureaucracy in England except the closely allied Exchequer [that managed the treasury]” (39). Its language came to define the parameters of royal power, including all judiciary functions and those later defined by various offices that answered to the King:

As custodian of the Great Seal, it was the central agency for the administration both of justice and of national affairs. . . . A mass of written petitions to the King and Council for letters of remedy and grants of land and money passed through the Chancery annually [along with] the ensealed writs and charters issued in response to these petitions. . . . The clerks . . . issued the summonses that brought parliaments together and the writs of expenses that sent knights and burgesses home with proof of their claims for wages. Chancery clerks both wrote and received petitions to Parliament and classified and presented them to the magnates who were the “triers” of petitions. They kept the rolls which recorded the proceedings of Parliament and drafted and enrolled the statutes that emerged from these proceedings. Chancery was likewise responsible for the administration of customs, taxes, and subsidies (since these derived from Parliament). All of the most important administrative officials looked to the Chancellor for their commissions of appointment and for authorizations for the most important actions. (42)

In 1400, there were about 120 clerks who worked in the Chancery (43). Documents issued by the Office of the Privy Seal were also copied by the Chancery–which is interesting because that is where Thomas Hoccleve, literary disciple of Chaucer, worked from 1387 until 1425. Hoccleve, after he retired, wrote a Formulary, a book of templates that clerks might use to construct documents.

Since it assumes such importance, its worth noting when and where English appears in it, and the Rolls of Parliament (the Rotuli Parliamentorum), scribed by the Chancery, “may be taken as a yardstick against which to measure the evolution of Chancery Standard” (46). They tell us that Parliament was first addressed in English in 1362, and that it was opened in English in 1363, 1364, and 1381. The first entry written in English was in 1388 for a petition by the Mercer’s Guild; after that, English entries appear in 1397, 1399, 1403, 1404, 1405, 1411, 1414 (twice), and 1421 (twice). After 1422, the accession of Henry VI, English entries become more frequent, and are the rule by 1450 (45-46).

A 2002 essay by Michael Benskin indicates problems with Fisher’s argument, showing that Chancery English in fact varied quite a bit, and that the line between Chancery English and PDE is not as clear as Fisher depicts; the models that fifteenth-century writers looked to did vary (there were regional models, for instance). But it remains true that the Chancery’s use of English provides a measure of the later medieval move away from French and Latin, and the corresponding recognition of the textual (and oral) ability of English to articulate and sustain the mechanisms of power.

See: Fisher, ch. 2, “A Language Policy for England”; Knowles 53-54; Crystal, CEEL 41, 54; Lerer, Inventing English ch. 8; Marilyn Corrie, “Middle English-Dialects and Diversity,” esp. 111-114, in Mugglestone (who cites Benskin’s essay). For copies of the texts, see John Fisher, Malcolm Richardson, and Jane L. Fisher, An Anthology of Chancery English (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1984), though its introduction is superseded by his chapter cited above. On Hoccleve, see Fisher 33-34, and Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse (University Park: Penn State UP, 2001), esp. 29-36 on the Formulary.

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A More User-Friendly OED

The OED changed its look last November. Actually, it changed more than just its look, since it also incorporates connections to other databases such as the Historical Thesaurus and the Oxford DNB. Over the past few months the OED has also started to chart some paths into the subscription-only database that is the dictionary. There have been for a while an array of searches that one could perform on the database–by date, source, and so on. Now the editors are starting to develop some more legible ways of interpreting the database, and to make at least some of these more publicly accessible too.

As an example, here is an essay on the First Dictionaries of English. It seems that the specific words linked to in the article are publicly visible. There are also links to the Oxford DNB, however, that aren’t visible without logging on, and neither is the link to the OED database that would describe Thomas Elyot’s dictionary as a source for entries.


Bengali Words in the OED

The essay is one from a page of essays called Aspects of English. This seems to be (hopefully is) just a sketch of what’s planned. There are few, at the moment, and they’re not lengthy. Hopefully the OED envisions them as more than just a marketing tool–I’d love to see these develop into an on-line library of interpretations of the database to which I could send students.

Another new way in, though this one only works by subscription, is a Timelines feature that charts the advent into English of words about different subjects (heraldry, social sciences), from different geographical regions, or from different language groups. The chart, for instance, illustrates when the 45 words in the Dictionary that originate in the Indo-Aryan language Bengali entered into English. This would be interesting to use in concert with the new Google Ngram Viewer that plumbs its book collection for word frequencies.

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Language Death

An article in The New York Times this week describes another language which is endangered, Koro, a language in northeastern India, discovered by recorders for Living Tongues, which seeks to preserve endangered languages (Terralingua is a similar group). According to the John Noble Wilford (who has written a lot of neat articles for the Times), “On average, every two weeks one of the world’s recorded 7,000 languages becomes extinct.” The total number depends a bit on how you count, but the point is very well taken.

[UPDATE: here is a video report from National Geographic about Karo.]

It’s a devastating number when one thinks of cultural implications: languages preserve the unique knowledge of a culture, which is tied to a unique knowledge of the area(s) in which the culture lived. Almost all languages started off as the creations of oral cultures, and knowledge in an oral culture is very hard to come by, and very hard to preserve. Loss also orphans the descendants of the culture; it’s for good reason that, this year, one of the MacArthur “genius” grants was given to “Jessie Little Doe Baird . . . who preserves the Wopanaak language of the Wampanoag Indian tribe of Massachusetts.” We’re not talking here about the well-documented phenomenon of immigrants who seek to teach their children the language of an adopted country rather than preserve their own, but the death of all existing speakers.

One problem with the “genetic” model of historical linguistic development is that the metaphor of a “language family” or “linguistic descent” imposes assumptions upon language change that aren’t true–for instance, that languages develop from one parent and then divide into multiple children (not so–English, for instance, has absorbed much from Romance languages, though it is “Germanic”); another is that the death of a language is necessarily its “end”: it’s not necessarily, since many languages evolve into other languages (think: Latin). This last is true, though, for relatively few languages. Here the genetic model helps: many Native American languages did simply end, or are ending. Latin was a conqueror, not a conquered, and this was at least part of the reason why it lived on to mutate.

It must be said that not everyone thinks that language death is a problem. One article I’ve seen references to by John McWhorter in World Affairs questions this, for instance, on several grounds. “The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic,” he argues–culture is preserved not just in language forms, for instance, but in knowledge which can be translated. He also addresses the colonialist legacy of the minority of conquering languages in the greatest of them, English:

Obviously, the discomfort with English “taking over” is due to associations with imperialism, first on the part of the English and then, of course, the American behemoth. We cannot erase from our minds the unsavory aspects of history. Nor should we erase from our minds the fact that countless languages—such as most of the indigenous languages of North America and Australia—have become extinct not because of something as abstract and gradual as globalization, but because of violence, annexation, and cultural extermination. But we cannot change that history, nor is it currently conceivable how we could arrange for some other language to replace the growing universality of English. Like the QWERTY keyboard, this particular horse is out of the barn. . . .

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation.

I disagree, and there are several ways to counter this. One is to argue that dying languages can be saved, and to work for not just memorialization but preservation. This happens, but there are precious few examples: language–especially a native, vernacular language–is awfully mutable, and preserving an endangered language relies on innumerable daily decisions by thousands of people. The second is take issue with his dismissal of the argument that linguistic forms carries culture, the argument I’ve gestured towards above: this is also a key point of disagreement that David Crystal would have with him, as in his chapter “Why Should We Care?’ in his book Language Death, in which he talks about ways that languages “express identity” (the titles of some related books on Amazon seem to indicate parallel arguments).

A third is to counter the foundation of his argument about what “globalization” means in the first place–to indicate that, like water, money flows along the path of least resistance, and that language globalization and death are means or by-products of means to let it flow more easily. Money, like politics, is a way in which the world talks to itself. To differentiate so clearly between these two–as McWhorter does, between “globalization” and “violence, annexation, and cultural extermination”–is to argue that a non-governmental, capitalist extermination of culture somehow entails less violence than the means of colonial empires. When, one might ask, have governmental and capitalist expansion not been linked since Columbus? How they are linked has indeed changed. Late capitalism is less directed, and more gradual than was the extermination of the Caribs, and language loss is perhaps just as inevitable: but to argue that economic motivations for a global reach result in less violence–however defined–than imperial desire is, to my mind at least, simply naive.

The slums of Rio

Slums in Rio: they will learn to speak the same language.

One example of how this works linguistically is the escalating migration from rural areas into cities, which has begun to climb exponentially over the past half-century. According to UNESCO, “In 2007, for the first time in the history of mankind, the urban population has surpassed the rural population: more than 3 billion individuals now live in cities or urban habitat.” Because capitalism doesn’t like the inefficiencies of rural life, rural poverty rates become higher than poverty in cities (hence the migration); often, however, the poverty into which many of these migrants trade their lives for remains astounding. Again according to UNESCO, urban poverty rates in some countries top 60%. Pollution, crime, disease, and exploitation all follow.

Linguistically, this migration wreaks havoc on linguistic diversity. This means that rare languages can more prevalent in cities (New York City being one example) than in their areas of origin. As with all immigrant cultures, however, without “unusually tenacious self-isolation . . . or brutal segregation” (which does exist within, for instance, orthodox Jewish communities), within two generations or so of living in a new area a family will speak the dominant language at home.

This is “people coming together”–but is this not violent?

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Romansh is a threatened Romance language which only exists in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland:

Romansh is the direct descendant of the Latin that was spoken in these mountain valleys at the height of the Roman empire, and shares the same Latin roots as French, Italian or Spanish. So isolated were the people who spoke it in their deep valleys that not one, but five, dialects grew up, though the differences are not substantial.

Here’s some information on it from Omniglot.

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Tony Judt

Tony Judt has published a new essay, “Words,” in the New York Review of Books (15 July 2010 ssue) which synthesizes the story of his own illness (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) with what one might call an autobiography of his literacy. He weaves together his personal story with another about how language learning and rhetorical style have changed over the course of the last half-century. There is much in the (at times rather beautiful) essay, but one thread that can be traced through it is the recent history of educated use of English. For more about him, look over at this story from the Chronicle.

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