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Ch. IV. The Scandinavians (Extract)

It is true that the Scandinavians were, for a short time at least, the rulers of England, and we have found in the juridical loan-words linguistic corroboration of this fact; but the great majority of the settlers did not belong to the ruling class. Their social standing must have been, on the whole, slightly superior to the average of the English, but the difference cannot have been great, for the bulk of Scandinavian words are of a purely democratic character. This is clearly brought out by a comparison with the French words introduced in the following centuries, for here language confirms what history tells us, that the French represent the rich, the ruling, the refined, the aristocratic element in the English nation. How different is the impression made by the Scandinavian loan-words. They are homely expressions for things and actions of everyday importance; their character is utterly democratic. The difference is also shown by so many of the French words —having never penetrated into the speech of the people, so that they have been known and used only by the 'upper ten', while the Scandinavian ones are used by high and low alike; their shortness too agrees with the monosyllabic character of the native stock of words, consequently they are far less felt as foreign elements than many French words; in fact, in many statistical calculations of the proportion of native to imported words in English, Scandinavian words have been more or less inadvertently included in the native elements. Just as it is impossible to speak or write in English about higher intellectual or emotional subjects or about fashionable mundane matters without drawing largely upon the French (and Latin) elements, in the same manner Scandinavian words will crop up together with the Anglo-Saxon ones in any conversation on the thousand nothings of daily life or on the five or six things of paramount importance to high and low alike. An Englishman cannot thrive or be ill or die without Scandinavian words; they are to the language what bread and eggs are to the daily fare.

Ch. V. The French (Extract)

Many of the French words, such as cry, claim, state, poor, change, and, one might say, nearly all the words taken over before 1350 and not a few of those of later importation become part and parcel of the English language, so they appear to us all just as English as the pre-Conquest stock of native words. But a great many others have never become such as are not at all understood by the common people and to the latter class may sometimes belong words which literary people would think familiar to everybody.

From what precedes we are now in a position to understand some at least of the differences that have developed in course of time between two synonyms when both have survived, one of them native, the other French. The former is always nearer the nation's heart than the latter, it has the strongest associations with everything primitive, fundamental, popular, while the French word is often more formal, more polite, more refined and has a less strong hold on the emotional side oflife. A cottage is finer than a hut, and fine people often live in a cottage, at any rate in summer.

The difference between help and aid is thus indicated in the Funk-Wagnalis Dictionary: ''Help expresses greater dependence and deeper need than aid. In extremity we say "God help me!" rather than "God aid me!" In time of danger we cry "help! help!" rather than "aid! aid! To aid is to second another's own exertions. We can speak of helping the helpless, but not of aiding them. Help includes aid, but aid may fall short of the meaning of help. All this amounts to the same thing as saying that help is the natural expression, belonging to the indispensable stock ofwords, and therefore possessing more copious and profounder associations than the more literary and accordingly colder word aid; cf. also assist.'' Folk has to a great extent been superseded by people, chiefly on account of the political and social employment of the word; Shakespeare rarely uses folk (four limes) and folks (ten times), and the word is evidently a low-class word with him; it is rate in the Authorized Version, and Milton never uses it; but in recent usage folk has been gaining ground, partly, perhaps, from antiquarian and dialectal causes. Hearty and cordial made their appearance in the language at the same time (the oldest quotations 1380 and 1386, NED.), but their force is not the same, for 'a hearty welcome' is warmer than 'a cordial welcome', and hearty has many applications that cordial has not (heartfelt, sincere; vigorous: a hearty slap on the back; abundant: a hearty meal), etc.

George McKnight

English words and their background


In the development of language it is well established that the things first to receive names were the definite, tangible things coming most close in everyday experience.

The less tangible elements in life were named by means of figurative shifts of earlier names. Thus the concrete names of space relations, which were appreciable by sight and touch, were made to serve in expressing the relations of time, matters outside the direct range of fine senses.

Thus long and short applied to time, are words originally expressing spatial dimension. The adjective brief, now associated with time, comes from the Latin brevis originally applied to space ... Most of the names for divisions of time may be traced back to words expressing physical facts: minute (Lat. minutus, "small"); second (Med. Lat. secunda minuta, "second minute", i.e. further subdivision); ... month (moon); year (underlying meaning "spring")...

The verb last, "to endure", in earlier English applied to spatial continuance. Endure goes back to a physical meaning "to become hard". Fast in the sense of "rapid", is derived from an earlier meaning "firmly fixed". Rapid, in turn, goes back to an earlier physical meaning "snatching"; it is related in origin to such words as rapacious and rapine. Quick, a native English word, had an original meaning "living", a meaning surviving in such combinations as quicksilver, quick line, cut to the quick, the quick and the dead.

In like manner moral conceptions have had to appropriate names from the physical world. Even the fundamental words, right and wrong, originally meant physically "straight" and "crooked", respectively (cf. right angle, right away, etc., and О. Е. wringan, "to twist"), and it will be noted that in modern colloquial language the shift in meaning has been repeated in the case of the words, straight and crooked. The fundamental meaning of good is supposed to be "fitting" or "suitable"; that of evil is supposed to be "excessive". The word bad, which somewhat mysteriously makes its first appearance in the Middle English period, it is supposed, applied originally to a form of physical abnormality... True, as it is pointed out elsewhere, in its remote origin, probably applied to the oak tree.

The way in which a simple set of words may be made to express a complex variety of meanings is illustrated further by the use made of names of such elemental conceptions as the parts of the body, the names of which are shifted to express a remarkably varied set of meanings in the inanimate world or in the world of thought. The name head appears in bridgehead, head of a pin, head of an institution, head of a class, fountain head, head of a coin, head of cattle, headland. The Latin caput "head", and its French derivative, chief, appear in a series of meanings equally varied, in such words as captain, capital (city), capital (property), chief (noun and adjective) and chef (of kitchen).

2. Read the following text and answer the questions:

1. What are the three types of motivation found in words?

2. Why is etymological motivation relative?

3. What is meant by the mutability of motivation?

Stephen Ullmann

Language and style

Part I. Problems of meaning

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