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!


Sniffing Boats, Singing Seals and Fat Banks of Fog

“When there’s enough that is the same
and enough that is different in such a relationship,
there is a fruitful middle ground to be explored.”

~ Luci Shaw, writing about her friendship with Madeleine L’Engle in Books & Culture. When I read those words, I immediately thought of travel.  We have humanity in common with all the people of the earth: we all experience loss, love, boredom, fear and wonder.  But each region has a unique culture and in exploring both the likenesses and dissimilarities we find things of delight and things of disgust.  The thrill of recognition – oh, she’s just like me! – and the fascination of otherness – um, why is that important to you? – are part of building any relationship.

William Zinsser calls the memoir “one of nonfiction’s most appealing forms.”  Amen and amen.  Insert travel in front of memoir and I’ll be swaying and singing my praises.  Travel memoirs float my boat. I love exploring Afghanistan, Russia, Japan, Mississippi, Patagonia, Provence, Tuscany, China etc. from the eyes of an observant outsider.

Some Lovely Islands by Mr. Leslie Thomas is now one of my favorite travel memoirs.  I will scour the bookstores of Great Britain for copies of this book. Thomas out-Rick-Steves Rick Steves as a “temporary local.”  He is not as philosophical as John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley, but his writing sparkles like a sun-drenched sea.  I filled nine pages of my journal with quotes from this author.

Thomas decided to visit 10 very different islands off of Ireland and Great Britain in one year.  Some were uninhabited, some had monasteries, a few had long-established communities, and most had a lighthouse.  It was great to read a chapter, surf the web and see the visuals; some of the people he mentioned in this 1967 book are now selling photographs on the web.  Viva le Google!

It is the writing that pinches, tickles, grabs and holds you.   He sees the elements of nature as living things; they are alive when you read his descriptions.

The mountains and sky fell upon each other
like black wrestlers locked in a hold;
and there was I staggering over mooring ropes and anchors.

…the saddest sight. 
A whole village, a whole life,
a whole story in doleful ruin.
The houses back up the hill,
roofless, windowless, doorless,
like a congregation of senile people
without teeth or eyes.

Fat banks of fog…with a certain politeness
stopped short and stood around
just outside the harbour.

The boat sniffed around the rocks
and panted into the landlocked pool
like a dog pleased to have rediscovered
a familiar rabbit hole.

Fads and fashions,
pavement and politics,
are miles away and of no matter.
The singing of the seals is real.

Talking about Work on St. Paddy’s Day

Ireland’s flag flies from the fence of my next door neighbor.
I think this (partially) atones for the plastic inflatable
Grinch last December, don’t you (wink, wink)?

[regarding the construction Columcille’s House (Columcille = Columba) in the town of Kells, Ireland, built 11th century.  This is where the Book of Kells originated.]

“They didn’t have time to do poor work.”  He was talking about the modern inversion of production standards – the prevalent assumption that we haven’t time, or can’t afford, to work well. But, of course, nobody ever has time or can ever afford to do poor work; that poor work is affordable is an illusion created by the industrial economy.  If bad work is done, a high price must be paid for it; all “the economy” can do is forward the bill to a later generation — and, in the process, make it payable in suffering.

But the real genius of a country, though it may indeed fructify in great individual geniuses, is in the fine abilities – in the minds, eyes, and hands – of tens of thousands of ordinary workers.  Peter called this “the genius of genus.” Columcille’s House was not, like a monument of modern architecture, the work only of one individual genius but grew out of many miles of stone walls around little fields and out of many cottages.

Thus, coming to Ireland has reminded me again how long, complex, and deep must be the origins of the best work of any kind.


   ~ Wendell Berry, Irish Journal essay, included in Home Economics (emphases mine)

* * * * *

And not seldom, after the manner of the apostle Paul, he toiled with manual labor, fishing and tilling the ground; but chiefly in building churches, to the which employment he much urged his disciples, both by exhortation and example.

~ The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick by Jocelin – found in the post The Toiling and Tilling of St. Patrick, by PoiemaPortfolio, a blog I highly value reading.  Thanks, Poiema!

* * * * *

If you have never read through (or sung!) St. Patrick’s Breastplate, also called by its Latin name, Lorica, you have missed a mighty anthem.  On those mornings when despair wants to claim victory, when bleak doesn’t begin to describe your outlook – on those mornings, these are words to strengthen and cheer you. 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  Put on The Chieftains,  boil some cabbage, cook up some corned beef, dance a jig, say a prayer of thanks for the gift of this man to our world, and do good work today.

St. Patrick’s Day

“I am not afraid of any of these things [murder, betrayal, slavery]
because of the promises of heaven;
for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.”
~  St. Patrick

Requisite of Irish monastic hospitality:
a clean house,
a big fire,
and a couch without sorrow.

Patrick’s legacy:  St. Columba and the Abbey at Iona
It is a dream of mine to see Iona some day,
to stand on these grounds
and to thank God for his faithful servants.

Old English Poetry

       The Voyage of Life

Now is it most like     as if on ocean
Across cold water     we sail in our keels,
Over the wide sea     in our ocean-steeds,
Faring on in our flood-wood.     Fearful the stream,
The tumult of waters,     whereon we toss
In this feeble world.     Fierce are the surges
On the ocean-lanes.     Hard was our life
Before we made harbor     over the foaming seas.
Then help was vouchsafed     when God’s Spirit-Son
Guided us to the harbor of salvation     and granted us grace
That we may understand     over the ship’s side
Where to moor our sea-steeds,     our ocean-stallions,
Fast at anchor.    Let us fix our hope
Upon that haven     which the Lord of heaven,
In holiness on high,     has opened by His Ascension.
                                                ~    Cynewulf

Isn’t that bit of ninth century poetry lovely?

It’s from An Anthology of Old English Poetry translated by Charles W. Kennedy. 
Used copies begin at $0.60 with $3.49 shipping and handling.  Such a deal.


As I read through Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People I fell in love with a man named Aidan (died A.D. 651). What is it with these A guys?  Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Aidan…  There are only two pages on his life (p.150-151 in Penguin Classics); but that is enough to win you to the winsome man who left the island of Iona to live in  Lindisfarne.  His life is marked by self-discipline and discretion.

Aiden was the most popular boy’s name in 2006.  I’ve decided that everytime I know a family who names their son Aiden I will include a photocopy of these two pages with a card of congratulations.  It is a lovely legacy.

Oh! OH! Wouldn’t Seamus [usually pronounced SHAY mus] and Aidan be lovely names for twin boys? 

~ ~ ~

Whether in town or country, he always travelled on foot unles compelled by necessity to ride;
and whatever people he met on his walks, whether high or low, he stopped and spoke to them. (p.150)

~ ~ ~

It is said that when King Oswald originally asked the Irish to send a bishop to teach the Faith of Christ to himself and his people, they sent him another man of a more austere disposition.  After some time, meeting with no success in his preaching to the English, who refused to listen to him, he returned home and reported to his superiors that he had been unable to achieve anything by teaching to the nation to whom they had sent him, because they were an ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament.

The Irish fathers therefore held a great conference to decide on the wisest course of action; for while they regretted that the preacher whom they had sent had not been acceptable to the English, they still wished to meet their desire for salvation. 

Then Aidan, who was present at the conference, said to the priest whose efforts had been unsuccessful: ‘Brother, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.’

At this the faces and eyes of all who were at the conference were turned towards him; and they paid close attention to all he said, and realized that here was a fit person to be made bishop and sent to instruct the ignorant and unbelieving, since he was particularly endowed with the grace of discretion, the mother of virtues.  They therefore consecrated him bishop, and sent him to preach.  Time was to show that Aidan was remarkable not only for discretion, but for the other virtues as well.  (p.151)


Armchair Travel

All my life I’ve been an armchair traveler.  The farthest I’ve stepped on foreign soil is Ensenada, Mexico.  But in my mind I’ve been to China, Afghanistan, Patagonia, Teheran, Prince Edward Island, London, Florence, Paris and Edinburgh.  My favorite TV show is Globetrekker.  My second favorite is Rick Steve’s Europe.  Mine is the life of vicarious thrills.

If you have taken a trip, I want to see your photos.  I want details, the stories behind the pictures.  Take your time setting up the scene, I want to drink it in.  After other’s eyes have glazed over, I’ll be there asking more questions. My current favorite photo is an outdoor dinner scene from Croatia.  My BIL and SIL went there to meet my BIL’s aunts and uncles from the old country last summer.  A group is sitting around a wooden table with a field of wildflowers as the backdrop.  The table is loaded with bottles of every shape, glasses, plates, dishes; everyone looks relaxed and sated.  There is something so European about the picture – it is really quite charming.

Last year my neighbors took a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip to Paris.  Mr. Neighbor, a pleasant enough Philistine, had one praise and one complaint. He loved the lack of undergarments on French women, but hated that he had to watch Indiana Jones in French.  Qu’est-ce que c’est?  You have 4 days in Paris and you’re watching movies in the motel? His wife gave more details over the rosebushes.  I pumped her with questions: Did you get out to Versailles?  Left Bank? You go inside Notre Dame?  She finally asked, “Really, Carol – how many times have you been to Paris?”   

, a Xanga feature, counts the hits and tells the state or country of origin of blog visitors. France, Spain, Hong Kong and Japan show up every day.  Less frequent are hits from Quebec, the Netherlands, China and Germany.  I’m am thrilled and give my husband unsolicited reports.  However, there is one glaring omission. Where, oh where, is Scotland?

Maybe I should write about reading John Buchan aloud to my husband last night (he fell fast asleep).  Or mention my passion for a Scottish brogue.  A Scottish pastor spoke at our church family camp and my friend said that the speaker could have read through the phone book and she would have been edified. 

I love the Scots.  People like John Knox, John Muir, Thomas Chalmers, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, David Livingston, William Wallace.  My most favorite, most beloved author is an unknown Scottish woman Anna Buchan who writes under the pen name O. Douglas.   If I have one trip in my life, it must be Scotland.  Take me to Stirling, to Glasgow, to Aberdeen, to Edinburgh, to Perth, to Priorsford, to St. Andrews; take me to Skye before I die.  

I want to see the highlands, the lowlands, the borderlands, the beaches, the firths, the kirks and the castles.  Feed me scones, play me bagpipes, take me to Scotland.  Or at least bring one Scot to my blog.

Fine Art Friday/Turning Pages


and, finally, a detailled view:

This dovetails with our reading of Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  My youngest son enjoys bringing his dad up to speed with our reading during the dinner hour.  We both enjoy listening to his retelling of Bede’s stories.  

Look what I found!!!  This is HUGE!

The British Library’s feature Turning the Pages        

It took about five minutes to download and now we have access to all kinds of rare documents.  I looked through the Lindisfarne Gospels and Jane Austen’s juvenile History of England.  Also available are Leonardo daVinci’s notebook, Mozart’s musical diary, the original Alice in Wonderland.  More works will be added. It is really unspeakably marvellous to be able to see these pieces like this on your computer screen.

 Oh, I am sooooo happy that we now have DSL.  This is a treasure trove of exploration.