100 WORDS.

I always enjoy David Crystal’s writing about language, and he’s got a new book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that sounds well worth reading (it’s just come out in the U.K. and will appear in the U.S. next spring). Crystal’s piece in the Telegraph explains what he’s up to (and gives a complete list of the words):

If you can tell the history of the world in 100 objects, as the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor did last year, then it ought to be possible to tell the history of a language in a similar number. But, as with objects, it isn’t enough for each word to be interesting in its own right. It has to represent a whole class of words. It has to tell a story. And each of these individual stories should add up to the history of the English language as a whole. …
But words are more than just linguistic objects. They are windows into the world of those who use them. Part of the challenge, then, is to find words that best give us a real insight into social history. For the Anglo-Saxons, my choice included loaf and mead, street and lea. For the medieval period, swain and pork, dame and royal. For the time of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, alphabet and dialect, shibboleth and potato. For the next centuries, gazette and fopdoodle, lunch and tea. And so to modern times, with jazz and Watergate, PC and apps, LOL and unfriend. They make interesting bedfellows.

(I’ve added italics where I’m sure Crystal intended them.)


I cavil a tiny bit at his inclusion of mipela among the words contributed by “international dialects, each with its own local vocabulary”; Wiktionary tells me that it’s the first person plural exclusive pronoun in Bislama and Tok Pisin, which by any reasonable standard are separate languages and not dialects of English (the very fact that they have a first person plural exclusive pronoun should be a strong hint in that direction). And I am intrigued by his mention of “the earliest example of a written word in the language. Thanks to an exciting archaeological find, we know this to be roe.” Does anybody have any information about this?

Comments

  1. I haven’t seen the book yet, but presumably he’s referring to the Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus.

  2. Crystal covered this in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (2nd ed.):

    The earliest runic inscription known in England was found in a cremation cemetery at the former Roman town of Caistor-by-Norwich, Norfolk (the name comes from Latin castra, ‘fort’). It is written on a roe-deer’s ankle-bone (astragalus), which was probably used as a plaything (perhaps a die in a game), and reads raihan, ‘roe-deer’. The runic scholar R I Page draws attention to the shape of the H rune, which has a single cross-bar: this was typical of northern runic writing, rather than the system used further south in Frisia (where the H was written with two cross-bars). It suggests that the person who used this script came from Scandinavia, possibly southern Denmark. The significance of the find is that it dates from c.400. This person was living in East Anglia well before the Anglo-Saxon invasions began.

  3. Trond Engen says:

    I agree with Tok Pisin being a language in its own right, but The Story of English without the globalization of modern English. Words like mipela from English-based creoles are one side of it, e.g. German Handy or French relooking showing English as the productive part of other languages would be another. Since it’s not The Story of English in 100 English Words, I mean.

  4. “the name comes from Latin castra, ‘fort’”
    And doesn’t Norwich betray a Viking origin? -wich being cognate with -vik? Or am I getting my English-place-name-endings confused?

  5. Since it’s not The Story of English in 100 English Words, I mean.
    O, we’d better have one of those then:

    West Germanic language, developed as Anglo-Saxon (5C–11C CE) in England with little from the Celtic substratum, but some added Norse and Church Latin. Overlaid with Norman French (elite language following conquest). Inflections fell away. Almost no gender or declension; reduced pronoun and verb systems. Vowel and consonant shifts. Renaissance brought much learned Latin (with Greek), some Italian, etc., filtering into common use for an abundant lexicon. Empire brought more exotica: Malay, various Indian, various African. Postcolonially, English grows steadily as a (or the) world language (compare algae, television). Competing standards; but the web clinches mid-American as the eventual victor.

  6. I thought some form of Singlish was predicted as the eventual victor.

  7. @Chris Waugh: I think if it were Norse it’d be *Norwick.
    And you do know that “Waugh” is the singular of “Wales”?

  8. mid-American as the eventual victor
    Ugh! A world in which the majority speaks either mid-American or Mandarin. Even if it doesn’t happen in my life time, it’s too dismal a prospect to contemplate.

  9. From what I remember from school (I’m from Norfolk) Norwich was founded by the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings came later and eventually settled in Norwich after they’d done pillaging ‘n raping, of course.

  10. Trond Engen says:

    Most of those placenames are Latin vicus “marketplace” rather than Scand. vík “bay”. Actually, the word viking itself is quite enigmatic, and one suggestion I’ve seen parses it as “vicus-guy”.

  11. Based on a partial reading so far, it’s an informative and very enjoyable book, and Crystal’s Telegraph article is an excellent introduction. To complement Ben’s comment on roe, the following is from Crystal’s recent book Evolving English (which includes a photo of the object in question):

    From around the second century AD we find inscriptions in the Germanic languages of northern Europe using letters known as runes . . . . The earliest found in England dates from the early fifth century. It was discovered in a cremation urn in a cemetery at the former Roman town of Caistor-by-Norwich, Norfolk. The runes are written on a roe deer’s ankle bone (astragalus) — probably used as a plaything, as the urn also held a number of sheep knucklebones used as gaming pieces. The object is now in the Castle Museum in Norwich.
    Whether this can be considered ‘English’ is debatable. The runes read raihan, an early form of the Old English noun raha meaning ‘roe deer’, so that the word probably meant ‘from a roe’. It is a typical inscription of the time, stating the source or material from which an object is made. Of particular linguistic interest is the shape of the ‘H’ rune, which has a single cross-bar: this was characteristic of northern runic writing, rather than the system used further south in Frisia (where the ‘H’ was written with two cross-bars). It suggests that the person who lived in East Anglia and used this script came from Scandinavia, possibly southern Denmark, and was living in East Anglia well before 449, the date usually given for the arrival of Anglo-Saxons in England.

    By the way, I posted an excerpt on one of Crystal’s 100 words, bone-house — an Anglo-Saxon kenning — on my blog last week.

  12. “living in East Anglia well before 449, the date usually given for the arrival of Anglo-Saxons in England”: “usually”? More like “once upon a time”. The idea that there were plenty of Krauts and Scandowegians stotting about in Britannia has been around for a long while.

  13. I was told the Romans founded Norwich. Does wick have a different meaning & origin than vik? There aren’t too many bays around there…yet. But it’s less than 20 miles to the coast, and the government won’t pay to repair the sea walls anymore, so large chunks of Norfolk are falling into the sea. My great-grandparents are buried at Walcot church by the coast, and I expect them to fall in any day now.
    Incidentally Norwegian still has rådyr for roe deer.

  14. “Ugh! A world in which the majority speaks either mid-American or Mandarin. Even if it doesn’t happen in my life time, it’s too dismal a prospect to contemplate.”
    Awwwww. What’s wrong with mid-American? That’s the dialect most English people in the world speak, or Volksenglisch as you would say in Europe.

  15. That’s the dialect most English people in the world speak
    Um, English people? Do you mean first-language speakers of English?
    … mead …
    Does Crystal have in mind the wine made from honey, or the mead that is a meadow (related to “mow”, and to the “math” of “aftermath”)? Or can he count these two as one word? The honey one is a scion of my favourite PIE root.

  16. The last honey of the season is in our local shops now – Ivy Honey. This may not be strictly relevant.

  17. Dr. N: I used to think that “melody” was related to “mellifluous”, but it seems that it’s not. Let me ask you why that PIE root is such a favorite. I figure that the answer is bound to be edifying, or amusing, or something else good.

  18. J. W. Brewer says:

    Does Norwich actually rhyme with porridge in BrEng (or some relevant East Anglian dialect), or am I relying on an inaccurate source which took some poetic license? The internet tells me that unfortunately the “etymology of porridge has not been neatly worked out because the chain of evolution has a number of missing links,” which may make it hard to get to the bottom of the common -idge morpheme.

  19. Yep, I say “naar-ridge”.

  20. It depends whether or not you pronounce porridge as purritch.

  21. It depends whether you pronounce porridge as purritch.

  22. Alan Bennett: [dictating a telegram into the telephone] I want to end it if I may, “NORWICH”.
    [pause]
    Alan Bennett: “NORWICH”, yes. Well, it’s an idiomatic way of saying, “Knickers Off Ready When I Come Home”. You see, it’s the initial letters of each word.
    [pause]
    Alan Bennett: Yes, I know “knickers” is spelt with a “K”. I was at Oxford, it was one of the first things they taught us.

  23. Dr Ø:
    I’m afraid there is nothing deep in my love of the PIE root medhu- (Pokorny médhu- 707). I must have received it at an impressionable age. I was immediately enchanted by the connexions that suddenly sprang into view: mead; Serbian med, Polish miód (mead being miód pitny, “drinkable honey”), and all the other Slavic cognates; Serbian medved (“honey eater”; cf. other Slavic); Sanskrit madhu (“sweet” or “honey”; ach!); Hungarian “méz”; Greek μέθυ (whence “methylene” and all the rest). It’s just unanalysably lovely. So are others, I suppose.
    Noetica among the language-sprites.

  24. According to Wikipedia (and I’m not saying it’s right), Medved is the Slavic term for “bear”, literally translating into “one who knows honey.”
    “One who knows honey” – where did the Slavs get this, Winnie The Pooh? The average bear wouldn’t eat honey if the bees were giving it away (which they are, of course).

  25. Bears do, however, eat bee larvae: the honey is just lagniappe.

  26. The original word for bear in Russian was apparently ditched due to ‘taboo avoidance’. Old bruin (‘the brown one’) was apparently heapum strong magic.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    “Honey-knower” means it’s parsed med-ved. Another possible parsing is medv-ed “honey-eater”.
    It was not just in Russian the older word was ditched. Germanic uses a replacement too, originally an adjective. Celtic has several words if I remember correctly. Latin ursus, Greek arktos may continue the PIE word or be an older replacement (which would have yielded *urrow in modern English).

  28. Eating and knowing honey? For some discussion see here. I suppose these operations are coextensive. You could not know honey till you tasted it, right? And presumably vice versa, unless you were taking it intravenously. The late great Princeton philosopher David Lewis, for whom Australia was like a second home[land], made a point of never tasting vegemite, in order to have such a fact readily available at all times.
    The Hungarian for “bear” is medve. They also borrowed a general Slavic word for “cat” as macska, for “sparrow” as veréb, and so on. But I think galamb (“dove”) from Romance “columb-”, about which something has been said before. See Hansard for 5 February 2007.
    But what about vulumbrella, eh?

  29. Graham Asher says:

    And of course classical Greek has the possibly apotropaic kenning ‘keriokleptes’ – stealer of wild honeycombs – a word that amused us at school when we found it in Liddell and Scott.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    and reads raihan, ‘roe-deer’

    Oh, so the h in Reh is etymological. Good to know.

    It suggests that the person who used this script came from Scandinavia, possibly southern Denmark.

    Or perhaps that the bone was imported from there (in some soldier’s personal possession or something)?

    Another possible parsing is medv-ed “honey-eater”.

    This requires that the compound was formed before /w/ turned into [v]. Untestable, alas.

    Latin ursus, Greek arktos may continue the PIE word or be an older replacement

    Hittite hardagas is cognate – and apparently means “destroyer”. Looks like the PIE word was itself a replacement.

    Eating and knowing honey? For some discussion see here.

    Completely neglects to explain how [u] can turn into [v] – via [w].
    Interesting that the possible Semitic cognate has /t/. That means it can’t be cognate, unless the recent idea that PIE aspiration was originally suprasegmental* is true.
    * A feature of a word/syllable/root, like tone, rather than a feature of a phoneme.

    galamb

    Right next to identical to Polish gołąb.
    OK, so, who first had the idea of turning /k/ into /g/?

  31. I cannot believe that *rkto- or even its metathesis *rtko is an irreducible PIE root. It has to be a compound of some sort, though a mysterious one.

  32. Trond Engen says:

    Bjorvand & Lindeman gloss Hitt. har-tág-ga-as (“read: hartkas”) as “in all probability “bear”‘, and says it allows the reconstruction *Hr.tk’o-.
    Here’s a longshot for a compound: *Hr- “hollow” plus what I think ought to be a zero-grade *tk’- of the root that gave the theme *tk’-ey- of ‘home’ (this theme is said to be discussed in Mayrhofer (1983 & 1986), for those who may have them at hand), “cave-dweller”.
    (My apologies for ad hoc substitute notation.)

  33. marie-lucie says:

    I seem to remember a similar discussion of words for “bear” her a while ago (3 years?).
    JC: I cannot believe that *rkto- or even its metathesis *rtko is an irreducible PIE root. It has to be a compound of some sort, though a mysterious one.
    I am not convinced by *rkto- or *rtko either, even if the *r is syllabic. And “Hittite hardagas” or a similar form is only “in all probability” a word for ‘bear’. There is no certainty about the meaning, nor of the form: I can’t see that har-tág-ga-as with stress on the -tág- (presumably the root) could “read: hartkas” which does not have that same vowel. Semantically, if that Hittite word means ‘destroyer’, it sounds like a strange sort of common euphemism for the bear, since most euphemisms for dangerous animals are either purely descriptive (brown, honey-something) or laudatory in order to disarm the ferocity of the animal. Calling him “destroyer” would emphasize his ferocity and bring out his dangerous attitude towards the people using the word. So even if the Hittite word does mean “destroyer”, it might not have been the word commonly used for the bear, for instance by hunters, but perhaps a literary descriptive word.
    The endings of the Greek and Latin words suggest to me that they might be past participles, so deriving from verb forms, rather than compounds (although they could have been reinterpretations or deliberate deformations of a phonologically similar lost form). But this is only my own hunch, and I am not a PIE specialist.

  34. marie-lucie: You’re probably remembering one of these two LH comment threads:
    http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003063.php
    http://www.languagehat.com/archives/003126.php
    from, yes, about 3 years ago.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    “cave-dweller”

    Why not.

    I can’t see that har-tág-ga-as with stress on the -tág-

    Misunderstanding. When cuneiform characters are homophones, they’re marked in transcription by subscript numbers, more or less by decreasing frequency; usually, only 2 or 3 are common, in which cases the first goes unmarked, the second gets an acute accent and the third a grave accent. Stress wasn’t marked in cuneiform; where the Hittites put their stresses is probably unknown.

    or laudatory in order to disarm the ferocity of the animal

    Couldn’t “destroyer” be just that? Compare Conan the Destroyer.

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