Dinesh sent me a link to an online version of Poul Anderson‘s essay “Uncleftish Beholding,” a discussion of atomic theory that “shows what English would look like if it were purged of its non-Germanic words, and used German-style compounds instead of borrowings to express new concepts.” It begins:

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.
The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen it before, in my sf-fan days, but it was great to have it available, and I was even more delighted when I found it posted by José Beltrán Escavy, this time paired with a pair of short speeches by professor Xenophon Zolotas at meetings of the International Bank using only words of Greek origin (apart from the necessary connectives):

I eulogize the archons of the Panethnic Numismatic Thesaurus and the Ecumenical Trapeza for the orthodoxy of their axioms, methods and policies, although there is an episode of cacophony of the Trapeza with Hellas.
With enthusiasm we dialogue and synagonize at the synods of our didymous Organizations in which polymorphous economic ideas and dogmas are analyzed and synthesized.
Our critical problems such as the numismatic plethora generate some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch…

The other languages one could use as a basis for such texts are Latin and French, and I imagine someone has done so.


  1. DamagedGoods says:

    Anderson’s neat little whatsit was first put out in “Analog”, better’n a dozen years back–not sure when. I liked it then too. In “La Ton Beau De Marot”–I forgot who wrote it–are a few more tries at showing us how the world works, that wield some mighty odd word choices and still light up your knowing. Check it out.
    By making home things seem faraway for a short spell, a good wordsmith can bring some faraway things closer to home…

  2. “La Ton Beau de Marot” is by Douglas Hofstadter, who — in the vein of this post — also includes a description of general relativity using only Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. I looked for “Uncleftish Beholding” online after reading Le Ton beau de Marot*, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.
    *Note the French-style capitalization, which Hofstadter actually mentions at one point. (Incidentally, I wish you (languagehat) would read the book and tell us about it. Hofstadter’s style may be playful, but I do think he appreciates the importance of the topic. I didn’t really find him convincing on the translation of poetry, but I’d like your opinion of where he goes wrong. And it contains much of interest, regardless.)

  4. How about ‘welkinish’ for universal?

  5. William Barnes would have been well impressed by this. (Now how about a discussion of quantum mechanics in Dorset dialect?)

  6. As would Robert Bridges!

  7. Since this is the most recent post to mention Greek language, I figured I’d post the sad news here: linguist Anastasios-Phivos Christidis (Αναστάσιος-Φοίβος Χριστίδης) has suddenly passed away at age 58. Here is the Eleftherotypia obit I just had the bad surprise to see in print.
    Sometimes I wish it were less easy to buy Greek newspapers in Paris.

  8. Allan Beatty says:

    Le Ton beau de Marot: I took this to be library catalog capitalization rather than French style. That is, normal English sentence capitalization, plus if the first word is an article ignored in alphabetizing, capitalize the next word.

  9. How about ‘welkinish’ for universal?
    How would that be good? “Welkin” basically means “cloud”, doesn’t it? (This goes right back to Proto-IE “uelg”, Pokorny 1145: “wet”.) Alternatively and secondarily it means “sky”, “firmament”, or “heavens”: but that shouldn’t warrant its being adopted for “universal”. “Universal” is not equivalent to “uranic”.
    Carl Darling Buck (in A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, 1.1, p. 13) distinguishes three different themes associated with “world”: the physical world generally; the known world, of mankind; earthly life, as opposed to “the world to come”. In a footnote he explicitly excludes from his main discussion technical terms importing “universe” (like Latin “universum” itself, and current German “Weltall”). The Anglo-Saxon words “middangeard” and “weorold” are themselves unsatisfactory bases for a native word meaning “universe”, even though the first (=”mid-yard”) was used in a more extended way than its primary sense suggests. They just don’t seem to have had the concept!
    I’d go for “allyard” as “universe”, myself; and “allyardly” for universal. But then we’d have “allyardlily” for “universally”, and get into all sorts of strife…

  10. Ingeborg S. Nordén says:

    My own Germanic-only substitutes for “universal” would be “all-spanning” if cosmic space were not implied from the context, and perhaps “every-worldly” if that meaning *were* implied. I’d probably recast the adverbial equivalent as a phrase (e.g., “in/throughout all worlds, in/throughout all things”).
    Regarding the “Ander-Saxon” chemistry article, though: “Round” and “ordinary” are both Latin-based words. I’d probably replace the latter with something like “widespread” or “often-seen” if a pure Germanic vocabulary were needed. Finding a native “around” word to construct an equivalent of “periodic”, though, is nearly impossible in English. (It could be done in Poul Anderson’s native Danish, where the equivalent preposition/adverb is a Germanic doublet of “ring”.) Perhaps another way of describing the elements’ recurring traits might work; “to-and-fro” is the least awkward Anglo-Saxon that comes to mind.

  11. “Welkin” basically means “cloud”, doesn’t it?
    *uelg and wolcen may have meant “cloud”, but I’ve checked three dictionaries and none of them offer “cloud” as even a secondary meaning of welkin in Modern English, just “sky” “firmament” “vault of heaven” etc. Not that this detracts from your argument.

  12. “Round” was well spotted, Ingeborg.
    An Anglo-Saxon word for the proposition “around” or “about” was “ymbe”, frequently occurring as a prefix. It is cognate with Latin “ambi” and Greek “amphi”. It survives in “unbethink”, and is also the source of our “by”, via the short form “be”.
    If “by” does not mean exactly “around”, why not use simply “about”? So:
    and about it one or more light motes with backward ladings
    And perhaps:
    called the *aboutboard of the firststuffs*
    But I also like “ring”, and see nothing wrong in:
    and ringing it one or more light motes with backward ladings
    Or in:
    called the *ringboard of the firststuffs*
    Has a ring to it, hmmm?
    “Ordinary” might be changed to “daily”, “day-to-day”, or something plain like that. “Slight” (cognate with German “schlicht”) has some claim, but is more Norse than Anglo-Saxon, and would be misleading.
    The suggestions for universe are interesting. From the introduction of “thing”, suddenly “allthingly” looks viable.

  13. Yes, Tim May. “Welkin” no longer means “cloud”. SOED gives that meaning for OE to ME, as sense 1. It goes on to these:
    2 a The vault formed by the sky, the firmament. OE. b spec. The abode of God or the gods; the celestial regions, heaven. M16.
    [dagger]3 In Ptolemaic astronomy: a celestial sphere. Only in ME.
    4 The upper atmosphere; the region of the air in which the clouds float, birds fly, etc. LME.
    Many “cloud”-words came also to mean “sky” – including “sky” itself. I hate to be monotonous, but SOED starts with:
    sky /…/ n.ME. [ON ský cloud, rel. to OE sceo, OS scio and (more remotely) OE scuwa, OHG scuwo, ON skuggi shade, shadow, Goth. skuggwa mirror.]
    [dagger]1 A cloud; in pl., the clouds. ME–M16.

  14. How would Alfred the great have translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, with its many universal and cosmic terms, unless there were, at that time or earlier, borrowing of such words from Latin? This may have foreclosed the possibility of germanic words for many of these concepts, so that one erroneously concludes that Anglosaxon literature did not have those concepts.

  15. I don’t think anyone’s denying that Old English had Latin loanwords; it’s just fun to try to construct a de-Latinized form of the language.

  16. I agree, LH. There is influence from a Celtic and Latin subtratum in Old English, and of course continuing borrowings from Christian Latin and other sources. Then consider the complexities of the Norse involvement. Fun, as you say.
    Compare the situation of Latin itself, and its relations with Greek, Etruscan, the languages of conquered regions, and so on.
    I’m reminded of non-IE words turning up in Sanskrit, against our normal assumption of it as paradigmatically a purified IE-Indic standard (almost embodied in the very word “Sanskrit”, whose meanings and motivations we could explore, could we not?).

  17. Yes, when I took Sanskrit the professor repeatedly drummed it into us that Sanskrit was basically a Middle Indic language with plenty of borrowings (including, if I’m remembering correctly, borrowing from the Prakrits), but gussied up to look like “a purified IE-Indic standard.”

  18. Ingeborg S. Nordén says:

    From what I can tell, Anderson did not intend to rule out borrowings from Old Norse, or from other Germanic languages (his allusion to Norse gods in some “translated” element names seems to prove that). His only constraint seems to be “exclude anything non-Germanic”…which he handled very well other than the “round” and “ordinary” goofs.
    One nitpick, though…for the sake of clarity, I would have used “tally” to translate “number”, since “tale” has a very different meaning in standard English (despite the fact that other Germanic languages do use “tale”-cognates in that sense).

  19. Ingeborg S. Nordén says:

    P.S. to Noetica: your suggestion of using “about” as a Saxon equivalent must have escaped my mind when I first read the article. Great thinking…I’d probably translate “periodic” as something like “ringwise” or even “ring-shifting” if a separate adjective were preferred, though.

  20. “Ringwise” appeals to me, Ingeborg. Ringwise board of the firststuffs! I like it. Sounds like proper Ringlish (if you’ll excuse an exaggerated intervocalic rhotacism).
    And I take your point about Norse.

  21. You know guys, Poul Anderson didn’t try to get rid of EVERY single non-Germanic word. That would be stupid. He, like William Barnes, got rid of the foreign-sounding non-Germanic words. Thus “round” is perfect English. :)
    John S. Bolton: I can see that you’ve never studied Anglo-Saxon, then. :) Anglo-saxon was full of learned compunds and words. These learned words, however- such as in matters of law, government and science- were replaced by Latinate and Greek words after the Norman conquest.
    The number of Latin words in old English is estimated at a few hundred (out of a recorded lexicon of 35,000+). In Modern English the number of non-Anglo-Saxon words is about 2/3 (altho’, for “everyday” words, the figure is about 1/3).
    Come to my website: I have a couple of pages on this kind of thing. I am in the process of editting them, but geocities is being a little funny with me… come along, anyway, because there is still stuff up online.

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