Where Did English Really Come From?

Have you ever stumbled upon one side of an internet debate about a subject which seems obscure to you but is consuming the person writing?  That’s what it was like reading John McWhorter’s contrarian book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

The essence of the argument is this:

The real story of English is about what happened when Old English was battered by the Vikings and bastardized by Celts. The real story of English shows us how English is genuinely weird—miscegenated, abbreviated.

[Miscegenation = sexual relations between people of two different races, from Latin miscere (to mix) + genus (race)] There is a Celtic impact on English, McWhorter says, especially from the Welsh and Cornish languages. This Celticness of English has not been acknowledged, so McWhorter is jumping up and down, flinging evidence around to convince the reader, sure, ’tis so.

The first chapter is The Welshness of English.  Sigh... I want to visit Wales.

The first chapter is The Welshness of English. Sigh… I want to visit Wales.

Only language-lovers should read this book of strange focus. Follow the arguments, raise your eyebrow, smile at the coincidences. Just keep reading to scoop up the pearls.

My heap of gems includes:

• Albanian is about 60 percent Greek, Latin, Romanian, Turkish, Serbian, and Macedonian. (My girlfriend has learned Albanian in the last five years: kudos to her!)

• Basque is a language related to no other. (HOW did that happen?)

• English’s closest relative if Frisian, a Dutch relative spoken in the Netherlands.

• This quote made me fizzy with excitement. It still does!

To strike an archaic note, in English we start popping off hithers and thithers. Come hither, go thither, but stay here or stay there. Hither, thither, and whither were the “moving” versions of here, there, and where in earlier English.

• If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, you know ‘Balder the beautiful is dead.’  The Phoenician-German connection made me say Aha!

And then, the Phoenicians were also given to referring to Baal as Baal Addir (“God great”) — that is, Great God. Sometimes they would write it as one word, Baliddir, or even a shorter version Baldir. And there in that Old High German document is a god called Balder.

I went through the index counting languages which are referenced. Seventy!
I can’t say I was fascinated reading this book, but I can say it was fun reading!

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis

ChisinauKircheSoborulAdormiriiMaiciDomnului2Orthodox church in Chișinău, Moldova (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


So. Tell me what you know about Moldova, eh? Tucked between Romania and Ukraine, the former Soviet country of Moldova is the least-visited country in Europe.

I confess my interest in Moldova had been nonexistent. During a marathon phone call with one of my brothers, he tossed out a random recommendation. “I think you’d like Playing the Moldovans at Tennis,” he said. “It’s about an English guy who bets he can beat the entire Moldovan national football team one by one…playing tennis.”

Sure. Let me write down the title.

[Sidebar: I’ve long wanted to write about reading as an expression of love. If my sibling, or child, or in-law asks me to read a book, I say yes! Unless it is The Silmarillion, in which case I started; alas, I could not finish. I believe it is so valuable to have shared experiences; when you are long-distance, reading and discussing the same book bridges a gap. Reading a book a dear one loves can help you understand each other better. And spending the time to read what he/she recommends is an investment in the relationship.]

Warmth, I was learning, was a luxury commodity in Moldova.

It is quirky. The bet is so eccentric, a limp pretext for a trip to Moldova. But the travel bit is what I appreciated the most. Tony stays with a family, sees life from the inside. It is cold. It is drab. It is dispassionate. It is grim.

People came into this bar to abolish drinks. No passing of the time of day, not even a nod which acknowledged the presence of anyone else; simply a quick fix and then out again. Nurse, give me something to deaden the pain.

When he first visited in 1998 there wasn’t enough money to keep streetlights lit. So people walked the streets in the dark. Tony realizes that stuff he takes for granted in England—being warm and fed—are not givens in Moldova. The transition to independence was not easy. His host family is kind, warm, and helpful.

‘You have to remember,’ she’d said rather poetically, ‘that for more than half a century we have been like caged birds. Now the cage is open we don’t know how to fly.’

I would have enjoyed this book and would recommend it if the tone wasn’t so coarse (f-bombs, body humor, locker-room bawdiness). Tony made a full-length movie of the book, available on YouTube. I’ve only watched 20 minutes, but it might be worth a look.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

mma1When I first read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, I chirped with evangelistic fervor about the series. But, a few disappointing books cooled that impulse to the point that I quit reading the last three books in this series.

A library hold came available so I read the books out of order. But the 14th book The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon has rekindled my love for the traditionally built Mma Ramotswe and and her quirky assistant, Mma Makutsi. This book might appear to be about a newborn baby, but on every level it is about friendship, about rearranging a relationship that expands from business to personal. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi remind me of Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables.

Any book by Alexander McCall Smith will have his trademark humor. There were three snort-and-holler moments in this book. I don’t want to give them away, but prepare yourself for horse laughs.

Only to the extent that they reveal human nature do I care about the solving of mysteries in this book. No. I read for the gentle wisdom, the poignant words of Mma Ramotswe. She thinks, she ponders, she reflects. Death, sunlight, music, change, marriage, the pace of life, beauty, differences between men and women. And she truly loves Botswana. It’s so refreshing.

I don’t like Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two mechanic apprentices: Charlie and Fanwell. Their characters are a waste of print. But I was surprised at Charlie’s response to the baby. He admires it, he wants to hold it; his cooing amuses and puzzles the women.

I want to highlight two passages whose beauty astonished me. One is a foot washing scene. Mma Ramotswe visits Mma Makutsi at her new home (she married Phuti Radiphuti) after a heavy rain. Her car gets stuck; she exits the car barefoot and walks through the mud to the front door.

Sidenote: only once have I participated in a foot washing ceremony. It was at a church retreat. The women gathered in a room and each one washed the feet of the person next to them. I felt humble shyness, willing to wash someone else’s feet but reluctant to have a friend wash my feet. It was emotional. It was potent. It was unforgettable.

“Let me wash them, Mma,” she said. “You sit there, I’ll wash your feet for you.”
Mma Ramotswe felt the warm embrace of the water and the slippery caress of the soap. The intimacy of the situation impressed itself upon her; that an old friend—and that was how she looked at Mma Makutsi—should do this for you was strangely moving.

And this short note on reconciliation:

And with that, she felt that most exquisite, and regrettably rare, of pleasures—that of welcoming back one who has left your life. We cannot do that with late people, Mma Ramotswe thought, much as we would love to be able to do so, but we can do it with the living.

Five solid stars and kudos to Alexander McCall Smith.

This and That

DSC_8975Perhaps if I can unravel some random thoughts, I might then clean my house.

End-of-life discussion: We recently had a conversation with a group of informed friends which has shoved its way into the front of my thoughts every day since. One book referenced was Jennifer Worth’s (of Call the Midwife fame) memoir In the Midst of Life. I want to blog about it once I’ve corralled my thoughts. Before that talk, my husband and I sat down to each fill out an Advance Directive, thinking we could accomplish this task in twenty minutes. Whoa!! We are different. Those ADs still sit on my desk….

Survivor: We’re having lunch with my mom’s brother, my one remaining uncle, next week. He is sensible to the position he holds, as repository of family lore, and is actively sending me photos and information. He exudes good cheer and laughter, turning a pun, teasing himself, loving life. When we talked on the phone this morning, he was preparing to plant potatoes.

Hunger Games:  Curt’s co-worker really wanted Curt to listen to HG so they could talk about them. In a throwback to the early days of marriage, we have cleaned up the kitchen (or not), turned the lights off, sat on a comfortable chair in our living room, and listened to a few chapters each night.

Later one night, we enumerated the allusions to the Roman Empire. Curt then said one word: Panem. But he thought he was saying: Pan Am.
I, thinking how fun it was to have pillow talk in Latin, replied et circenses.
Huh? a perplexed husband.
Bread and circuses, I expatiated.
You said “bread”, I said “and circuses.” You know! Rome! Entertain the masses.
Babe, I thought the city was Pan Am...like Pan American, or something.
And the laughter from that exchange was propelled me through the week.

Follow the threads and look what you find: I’m slogging through Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower Volume II: The President. Confused, I needed to differentiate the Dulles brothers: Foster Dulles—the DC airport is named after him—was Ike’s Secretary of State, and his brother, Allen Dulles, was head of the CIA. I’m forever curious about famous people’s children. Foster Dulles’ son, Avery Dulles, (1918-2008) was a Jesuit priest who has piqued my interest. His farewell “speech” (read by another because of his loss of speech) includes these words:

Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be expected as elements of a full human existence.

Well into my 90th year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

The Long Cord

500setsIt was 1983. I was staying home for the first time in my life, bringing up baby. We had one phone, attached to the wall. When you talked on the phone you were limited to, um, talking on the phone. Your options were sitting or standing.

It was BIG excitement to get a long cord! Now I could clear the table, pick up toys AND talk on the phone. There were daily calls with Kathi, another young mom. Our conversations ranged from our son’s latest schedule change to the man who picked his nose—and studied the results—during church to Gorky Park to Jazzercise.

Through the phone my oldest sister walked me through the dilemmas of motherhood and listened with patience and delight to my momentous pronouncements. He stared at me for two minutes without blinking! Like my lunches with my mom when I was in kindergarten, I had a need to narrate the current events of my life, give my commentary, consider and then demolish any imaginary criticism. When my thoughts had been downloaded, when I had been heard, we could comfortably end the conversation.

That cord would s-t-r-e-t-c-h almost to the kitchen sink. I learned to station the diaper bag within range so the conversation could carry on amidst messy diaper changes.

When I hung the phone up, the long cord spiraled into a double helix.

Babette’s Feast

BabetteA year ago I received Babette’s Feastfrom . Yesterday morning, a full ironing basket beckoned. I was in an unhurried mood one needs to watch Babette. After all the shirts were pressed I grabbed some tea and just soaked it in.

A great movie rewards each new viewing. Like many foreign films, the story is acted with subtlety rather than told point-blank in the dialog. But one shouldn’t be fooled by the slow pace. There is humor tucked into pockets of every scene. And irony—rich irony—becomes more evident, and more enjoyable, each time I’ve watched.

Babette’s Feast delivers a blow to gnostic pietism: the belief that worship is divorced from the way we dress, chop wood, sing, balance accounts, do laundry, have sex, eat and drink.The small Jutland community despises the physical—read: body—; only the “spiritual” is valued.

The two sisters, Martina and Philippa, have a heart for good works, but the disgusting bread ale fish stew they bring to shut-ins is a symbol of the impoverished culture in which they live. Their French servant Babette fixes a feast in which every sense is heightened. Her preparations are the pinnacle of the film: simmering soup, sauces, pastries, wine, chocolate. But she also pays close attention of the table setting, the presentation of the food, the order in which it is served.

I had no sympathy for the “dear Pastor” whose control of his daughters excluded the possibility of their getting married. His mocking laughter—I had not noticed it before— as he delivers a “dear John” letter from his daughter exposes him for the shriveled soul that he is.

I’m quite sure now that I didn’t “get” this movie the first time. The extravagance of one fine meal defies logic. As I grow, my appreciation deepens. I see layers upon layers, deeper meanings.

And the juxtapositions! In their paranoia the dinner guests agree to not mention the food. “It will be just as if we never had a sense of taste.” That was a laugh out loud moment! So they sit, silent and suspicious, while the general can’t stop talking about the exquisite dishes he is eating.

The general’s driver sits in the kitchen, watching and eating the same feast in a warm corner. Unlike the general, for whom the food recalls a Paris restaurant in his past, the driver has never before tasted French cuisine. He resides in the background of the movie, but his bright nose and twinkling eyes, his one word benediction: “Good!” is a fitting contrast to the others’ silence.

One distraction: the movie is Danish with English overdubbed. The chasm between the dubbing and the subtitles was hilarious!

I am eager to read Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen’s) short story that is the basis of the film. After a long search, I found a pdf copy of it. It has been twenty-five years since this movie was made. I would love to see a talented filmmaker remake this one.

Figaro, John and Abigail

marriage-of-figaro-program Mental Multivitamin calls it synthesis / serendipity / synchronicity. It’s that glorious connection between what you just read/saw/heard and—in an unexpected way—what you are currently reading/seeing/hearing.

The practice of reading (deep and wide) is in effect laying down a swath of Velcro loops. And along comes something that enhances, expands, expatiates on what you already know: those are the Velcro hooks.

That aha! moment brings me great joy. My husband wishes he had written down every hunting experience he’s had since he was seven…for the pleasure of reliving them. I wish I had noted each experience of synthesis / serendipity / synchronicity in my reading life; for there have been many and, alas, my mind grows dim.

::today’s synthesis::

For a year I have been plowing through Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present. It is demanding and daunting. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have had the fortitude and background knowledge to pull through. But it is rewarding in the same way that losing thirty pounds is rewarding.

Barzun writes several pages about Beaumarchais, the author of The Marriage of Figaro, artisan, wit, pamphleteer, and secret agent. Have you heard of him? Me, neither. Barzun calls him “the most effective helper of the [American] colonists in their war.” Do you find that an arresting description?

Mozart wrote an opera based on Beaumarchais’ story which challenged the French aristocracy, making Figaro, a valet (or barber), more noble than his master.

:: Pause, Barzun. ::

When I’ve been home alone this week, I have listened to Joseph J. Ellis’ history, First Family: Abigail and John Adams. After a five year separation, Abigail and her daughter Nabby joined John and John Quincy in Paris. The Adams family “attended an early performance of The Marriage of Figaro.”  Hello! I just read about significance of Figaro!! I reveled in the realization that for a time John and Abigail Adams and Mozart were both living and breathing in relative proximity.

::Pause, Abigail and John::

Three weeks ago I visited my friend Lisa in North Carolina. She had been culling books from her shelves and gave me a quaint 1913 book called Opera Synopses. In it I found more information on The Marriage of Figaro ; I learned the story is a direct continuation of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville (created by Beaumarchais).

::return to Barzun::

Fascinating! I went back to Barzun’s tome and there it all was: “the man who wrote The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro before the librettists of Rossini and Mozart gave the two plays another meaning for the musical state.”

I had previously read that sentence, but because I didn’t have any Velcro loops of interest or connection, that fact just bounced off my brain. The synthesis, the recognition, made those words adhere.

So what? Although I am familiar with the overture and several arias, I have never seen the opera. I started to watch it on YouTube this morning, while I wrapped Christmas presents, but quickly realized that three hours of opera wasn’t on the agenda today. And if I’m going to be thorough (cough, cough) I should start by watching The Barber of Seville first.

So little time…

E. Goudge’s Island Magic

0848813421When Hope at Worthwhile Books reviewed Elizabeth Goudge’s first novel, I wanted to read it.  The setting is St. Pierre, the capital of Guernsey, a channel island between England and France. Island Magic quenches two of my current fascinations: island culture and late 19th century rural life.

André and Rachell du Frocq are barely eeking out a living on a farm called Bon Repos (“Good Rest” or, as I like to translate it, “Sweet Tranquility”), a place that comes with a benediction written on stone outside the farmhouse:

Harbour and good rest to those who enter here,
courage to those who go forth.
Let those who go and those who stay forget not God.

The characters of André, Rachell, their five children, Grandpapa, and the stranger Ranulph— who is taken in after a shipwreck—, are vivid and unique; they linger in my thoughts days after I finished the book. Among the five siblings are a humanitarian, a poet, a failed academic, an adventurer, and a joyspring.

The story is sad and yet not without hope. The children have individual minor tragedies, they also have the confidence and security of being part of a bustling family. The tension resides between husband and wife as they begin to think about conceding failure at farming. The stranger’s assistance is helping the bottom line, but brings more marital conflict.

Typical of Goudge, there is a fairy element in the story. Themes of faith, bitterness, the value of beauty, hard work, service, gratitude, grief and sacrifice make the story shimmer. One point of the plot beggars belief. Of course I can’t identify it without giving away part of the story.

Rarely—and happily— I come across a sentence, with which I can fully relate, and about something I’ve never before seen in literature. Island Magic delivered! This is used to be me!!

How thankful she was for her one great gift—the gift of making her nose bleed at will.

Here is a great Christmas quote:

Christmas Day at Bon Repos was something terrific. The du Frocqs took the whole of December preparing for it and the whole of January recovering from it.

Goudge’s mother was a native of Guernsey; summer visits to the grandparents were part of Goudge’s childhood. Her final thoughts on island living in this book are a bit idealistic, but they reflect some of the necessities of interpersonal relationships in a closed society.

You can’t be an individualist on our Island. There’s so much magic packed into so small a space. With the sea flung round us and holding us so tightly we are all thrown into each other’s arms—souls and seasons and birds and flowers and running water. People understand unity who live on an island. And peace. Unity is such peace.



Alan Bradley and Bill Bryson

Alan Bradley and Bill Bryson

Alan Bradley, left; Bill Bryson, right.

It would have made a great story. If only the facts would cooperate.

Last night I finished listening to Bill Bryson’s book about Australia, In a Sunburned Country. I listened with joy to his elegantly turned phrases, self-deprecatory humor, and characterizations of the people and landscape. His dismay at the treatment of aborigines provoked me to care, too. At times Bryson’s tone veers to the suburbs of crass, and he inserts a few liberal rants, but overall I liked it very much.

As it happens, I also finished Alan Bradley’s latest Flavia de Luce mystery, Speaking from Among the Bones.  Because it’s how I’m wired, I read through the acknowledgments, and there two thirds down the page were these sentences: Family, too, have been there to wave flags and shout encouragement at every way station, and I’d like to especially acknowledge …Bill and Barbara Bryson

What? Bill Bryson in Alan Bradley’s family section? Crazy!  I skipped out of bed to explore this connection. Alas, Bill Bryson, the author, is married to a Cynthia. Bill’s father, William, is married to an Agnes Mary. I can’t detect anything other than coincidence in the names.

My favorite excerpt from Bryson’s book is his description of how he sleeps:

I am not, I regret to say, a discreet and fetching sleeper. Most people when they nod off look as if they could do with a blanket; I look as if I could do with medical attention. I sleep as if injected with a powerful experimental muscle relaxant. My legs fall open in a grotesque come-hither manner; my knuckles brush the floor. Whatever is inside—tongue, uvula, moist bubbles of intestinal air—decides to leak out. From time to time, like one of those nodding-duck toys, my head tips forward to empty a quart or so of viscous drool onto my lap, then falls back to begin loading again with a noise like a toilet cistern filling.

And I snore, hugely and helplessly, like a cartoon character with rubbery flapping lips and prolonged steam-valve-exhalations. For long periods I grow unnaturally still, in a a way that inclines onlookers to exchange glances and lean forward in concern, then dramatically I stiffen and, after a tantalizing pause, begin to bounce and jostle in a series of whole-body spasms of the sort that bring to mind an electric chair when the switch is thrown.. Then I shriek once or twice in a piercing and effeminate manner and wake up to find that all motion within five hundred feet has stopped and all children under the age of eight are clutching their mothers’ hems.

Flavia’s humor is dry, more inclined to make me smile in appreciation than to laugh out loud. And tucked in unexpected places the whiz kid chemist wonders about life.

How odd, I thought: Here were these four great grievers, Father, Dogger, the vicar, and Cynthia Richardson, each locked in his or her own past, unwilling to share a morsel of their anguish, not even with one another.

Was sorrow, in the end, a private thing? A closed container? Something that, like a bucket of water, could be borne only on a single pair of shoulders?


Edit: I received a gracious and funny email from Mr. Bradley confirming that his Bill Bryson is not the American author Bill Bryson.