How much of Englisch is English?

22 July 2013 Kerala Commentary

How Much Of Englisch Is English?

Discussion started in Literature, Science And Philosophy
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P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum.  

How did the English language originate and how it became the mother tongue of not the Brits only is an interesting part in the history of English language. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were the earliest tribes to settle in the island. It is guessed that they migrated from Europe simultaneous with the dawn of the Golden Age of Philosophy, 6th Century B.C. Angles’ Land became England in time. Romans called this land Britannica, giving it the name of Britain in later years. Letters in the word Englisch also changed to English.

England owes its language to France. England was an island surrounded on all sides by water, with so many inlets, islets, lagoons and shores. So it was only natural that the people there in the distant past developed as great canoers and fishermen. Where will they sell all this fish which quite surely they themselves can not consume? France was the nearest landmass and from Dover to Calais it was only a few kilometres of brave canoeing. Unlike the secluded island, France was a vast open landmass with open borders and long civilization- highways. It was not only the price of their trade wares, but the richness of a classic language also, that the fishermen islanders brought back to Britain. Many Frenchmen still comment that "English is nothing but our French, wrongly spelt and wrongly pronounced."

The seafaring skills of the Englisch helped in propagating their language and promoting colonization. Thus this language, unlike any other, began to be developed not from a single nation, but from nations around the world. As it was a living language unlike the dead Sanskrit, and as it had no reluctance towards assimilating and borrowing words from other languages, it began to grow fast and splendid. English language was the legacy left to various nations by those island seafarers. Where they stayed the longest, their language and the language skills of the people there developed fast and better. They had to pack up from America very early. They left India early. They left Africa only recently. We can assume the logical perfection of this language each of these continents attained by contact with their colonial administrators. In India, in many states like the North Eastern Border States, English is now the mother tongue of the people there, not a foreign language. English is in the same position in quite a number of places, states and nations. It is not the mother tongue of the Brits only now. It is still growing and developing.

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum.

Almost all words in the English language have three parts- the root, a prefix in the front and a suffix in the back. Sometimes there will be all these three and sometimes there will be the root alone. The root is the main thing, to convey an idea. Even though there are hundred thousands of words, there are only nearly seventy two roots, all originated in England or borrowed from Latin, Greek or French. The prefixes and the suffixes also are originated or borrowed the same way. Persian, Indian and Chinese languages also have made their contributions. Why this much Persian and Indian words came to the English language was due to English officers serving in the East India Company. Persian was the regal and official language in the emperors' courts in the East and all English officers had to study it. Except a few, almost all of them were well educated scholars and nobles who learned this language such well that translating famous Persian poets into English became their hobby to escape from Indian boredom. And they did this extremely well and this period is a remarkable chapter in the history of English literature and language. Had there been no such learning of Persian by these British Civil Service officers serving in India, there would not have been this much Persian poems brought into the English language. In critics' opinion, 'they filled the pages of English poetry books with the scent of roses and sweet sounds of bulbuls.' Normally, this brought a fine collection of Persian words also into English. Unlike the tight-lipped orthodoxy of a few British of those times, the language did not show any signs of untouchability, especially among the British officers serving abroad and sending every fortune that Britain enjoys today to their country. The language was not at all reluctant to assimilate new words from new lands and it grew each day. It is now no more a property of the British alone as it never has been in the days of yore. Just as Britain's prosperity of today was once the prosperity of the world's countries they defeated and ruled, their language is now world's language, taken in return. Trevelyan gives a good account of the development of this language, though his account has not been updated nor is complete.

In answer to the argument that there were never as few as 72 roots, not even in the Old English Period:

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum.

Languages in their beginning will have only fewer roots, prefixes and suffixes, because in that period of their origin, they would only need fewer number of words to express and convey the limited number of ideas their home society generates. As human experiences broaden and the horizon of man's knowledge widens, there will come the need for more number of words in their language to convey to other members the more number of ideas and the more elaborate schemes of ideas each member of the society arrives at. New roots will have to originate along with new prefixes and suffixes. If borrowing them from nearby and neighbouring communities and societies is easy, that will be the first thing done, instead of going into the tiresome intellectual task of building new ones. This was what was happening in our earliest societies at the time when their languages were originating and emerging. This author's native tongue Malayalam, which has the strange fascination of a language name that can be read equally correct from left to right as well as from right to left, has 56 characters. Whatever ideas are conveyed through the medium of this Malayalam language will have to be conveyed through English as well which has but only 26 letters in its alphabet. How this can be done is by borrowing as many roots, prefixes and suffixes as are available to be borrowed, building as many words as are possible and by assigning different meanings to every word in the language, the meaning changing every time it is used either as a noun or as a verb. No language can begin with exactly 72 roots. We know how little children speak in the beginning: Father Mother Quarrel. As they grow older, their sentences will become: Father And Mother Quarrelled Together. Every language in its original stage will be 'Father Mother Quarrel.' There will be no prefixes, no suffixes, no adjectives, no joiners.

Regarding a wise comment that English can be considered as a child of French and German and that Old English like Beowulf was practically German and Middle English like Canterbury Tales are a mixture of French and German:

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum.

Three countries are considered to have played a role in the English epic poem, Beowulf. It is a saga of the wars of the Swedes against the Danes as told by the Angles. Someone after an adventurous sea travel brought this story kept in his memory to the Angles Land which is now England where it was later cast in the poetic form in the Old English. Thus Sweden, Denmark and England are considered to have played a role in the English epic poem Beowulf. When it was written down in the word form generations after its origin, the author's name was lost during King Henry VIIIth's atrocities in monasteries. Because Beowulf originated not in English but was translated into it, it is noted that there have been many problems that had to be experienced during its translation to the English language. Beowulf, created by the unknown author before the Sixth century consists of 3182 lines, formulated at a time when there were no books and paper but were read loudly before great audiences. It was constructed not to be read with eyes, but to be sung loudly in public. Its creator was first trained as a traditional singer. It survived as an oral epic, handed over through generations orally. In those times, poetry creators were extremely skilled in constructing very long instant poems before audiences. Therefore they often did not have a concrete continuous story. Several adventures of kings and soldiers were clubbed together to form an epic. Moreover there would happen many editing and eliminations during these mouth to mouth transfer through generations. All these are impediments to even a skilled translator. Added to this is the fact that only one copy of the ancient manuscript survived raid and fire, which is kept in the British Museum. But the chief problem of translating the epic Beowulf is the ancient text being so complex and so imperfectly understood that only translations roughly equivalent in the modern English language have been possible till now. Language and literature of the island nation did not develop in isolation, as Mr. ….. here noted, but a few people still want to believe that way. 

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum. 

A few centuries back, no one in Britain thought America would be pouring in this much literature into the English language. Today, American writers in English are a prominent part of English literature. Once it was equally unthinkable that fine English literature would be coming from Australia, Africa and India. Today what we doubt is whether the number of prominent writers in English from these continents and sub continents are to be counted in thousands or in ten thousands. We can partly admit that this language in these geographical regions was a gift of British colonial administration to these people, but to the people in these regions, this language eventually became the language for liberation. Colonial administration was not the only cause for non-British people mastering and writing in English, as is evidenced by the presence of innumerable gifted Chinese and Russian writers who write or wrote English literature. People now simply learn to converse well with people in other countries in the world, and choose the most convenient language for it which is English. The perfection these people attain in the use of this language is never to be doubted because literature shows that their language is totally devoid of bad vulgar uncouth words, generally, since they learn not from listening to born English language speakers but from reading English books available in their countries which would always be the best to find market in foreign countries. Naturally when they speak and write in English, it would be good faultless text book language flowing from them, a great solace to editors, proof readers and publishers. Wherever we look, in print books, magazines or online reading material, we can see this difference felt. There has now come an unbridgeable gap in the finery and perfection with which non-English speaking writers and born-English speaking writers write English literature each. 

Who contributed to this discussion:

Athina Malapani, Esther Spurrill-Jones, Larry Swain, John Lionel Brooke and your editor, P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum.

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22 July 2013 Kerala Commentary