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Language And History - The Earliest Period

( Originally Published 1912 )

WE have hitherto treated the subject of the English language more in its formal aspect, without much regard to the thought of which it is the expression, and which fashions it for its instrument. The last, however, is the most interesting, and certainly the most important, aspect of the subject; but, save for the earliest period of our race-history, it has not yet occupied the attention of many scholars. The study of "Semantics," as it is called, the science of meaning, the development of life and thought as embodied in language, is yet in its infancy; and indeed, until the partial completion of the great Oxford Dictionary, in which every word is traced as carefully as possible to its origin, and all its changes of meaning registered in their chronological order, no such study could have been usefully undertaken in regard at least to the later periods of English history.

Every sentence, every collection of words we use in speech or writing, contains, if we examine its component parts, a strange medley of words, old or modern, native or foreign, and drawn from many sources. But each possesses its ascertainable history, and many of them bear important traces of the event or movement of thought to which they owe their birth. If, therefore, we analyze our vocabulary into its different periods, separating our earliest words from the later additions, we shall find the past of the English race and civilization embodied in its vocabulary, in much the same way as the history of the earth is found embodied in the successive strata of geological formation. For it is not too much to say that a contradiction between language and history rarely or never occurs. When a new product, a new conception, a new way of feeling, comes into the thought of a people, it inevitably finds a name in their language—a name that very generally bears on it the mark of the source from which it has been derived.

Let us, then, take our modern English civilization in a few at least of its broadest and simplest aspects, and attempt, by means of language, to study its elements and proximate sources, and the periods when they were accepted into the consciousness of the race.

By far the oldest deposit in the English language is a Iittle group of words inherited from the ancient Aryan language, which was spoken when our ancestors, and those of the Greeks, the Romans, the Slays, the Persians, and Hindoos all dwelt together in some unknown place, at some remote date, far in the prehistoric past. Although the belief in a homogeneous Aryan race is now generally abandoned, the evidence of language shows a continuity, if not of race, at least of culture; and these wrecks and fragments of speech, preserved by some happy accident, are by far the oldest documents we possess concerning our civilization, We have little or no historical knowledge of any of the Aryan peoples before about 1000 B.c.; beyond that period, to the time of the primitive Aryans, there stretches a gap, probably of many thousands of years, which we can only cross on this frail bridge of words. The earliest pioneers in the study of language, followed this track into the unknown past with more enthusiasm than caution, and created for themselves out of a few old and battered words the picture of a beautiful golden age, a kind of terrestrial paradise, which they located in the centre of Asia, where, five or six thousand years ago, they believed that the ancestors of the Aryan races dwelt together in pastoral and poetic simplicity and plenty. Recent criticism, however, has destroyed much of that beautiful picture; and it is not now believed that the evidence of language is sufficient to enable us to reconstruct, save in the barest outline, the conditions of this early culture. Even the Asiatic home of the Aryans is no longer generally believed in; and the most widely accepted of current views is probably that which places their home in the southern steppes of Russia, whence, at their separation, the Indian and Persian branch wandered towards the East, the Slays and Teutons into the German forests, and the Greeks towards Greece; while the ancestors of the Celts and Romans followed the course of the Danube towards Italy and Gaul.

It would be beyond our scope, however, to treat of this whole subject of the Indo-European languages and the primitive Aryan civilization; we must confine ourselves to the words existing in our English vocabulary which have been derived from that language, and which are evidence of the earliest known stage in the culture of our race. For we find in this primitive deposit of language, not only the original forms of words like knee, foot, and tooth, and terms for our simplest acts and, perceptions, but others more indicative of a definite state of civilization. The numerals up to ten descend to us from this period; the words father, mother, daughter, sister, brother, son, widow and our old word neve (now re-placed by the French nephew) show that family relationships had been considerably developed. Hound is an Aryan word, and with goat, goose, sow, and a word for horse, eoh, which we once possessed, but which has long since perished in our language, have been taken as a proof that these animals had been more or less domesticated. But the most important of these names of domesticated animals are connected with the flocks and herds of pastoral life, and seem to show that cows and sheep were the main property and means of subsistence for this ancient people. Ewe, wether, and wool, cow, ox, steer, herd, have been traced back to the early Aryans, and another word fee, which in Old English and other Teutonic tongues meant both cattle and money, and which is related to the Latin pecu, from which pecuniary descends. In-deed, the accumulated evidence of language proves almost beyond a doubt that the Aryans were a nomadic race, similar in habits to the modern Tartars, driving their herds of cattle with them on their wanderings, dependent for the most part on their meat and milk for food, and on their skins for clothing. The words wheel, nave, axle, yoke, and a root from which our wain and wagon descend, are regarded as a proof that wheels had been in-vented, and that the Aryans travelled in carts drawn by cattle. They possessed only one word for any kind of metal (our word ore descends from it) and this is taken to stand for copper, which is often found in a form easily hammered into use by primitive peoples. No Aryan words for sea or fish have come down to us; but our verb to row, and our word rudder (which originally meant a paddle) seem to show that the original race had learned some primitive forms of river navigation, probably in a canoe, dug out from the trunk of a tree, like the canoes of other primitive people. Door is a very ancient word; timber is derived from an Aryan root; and thatch comes from an old verb meaning "to cover." These words are regarded as a proof that the Aryans, like their Germanic descendants in the time of Tacitus, had begun to build some kind of wooden or wicker huts for themselves, without, however, windows, for which no term, common to the related languages, is found. Our word mead is found in many Aryan languages, and shows that this primitive people possessed a drink made from honey. The verb to weave is of equal antiquity and seems to show that some art of making cloth, or at least of plaiting, had been early acquired. Words showing a knowledge of agriculture are few and of doubtful meaning, and form a strong contrast to the terms connected with flocks and herds and wagons. The word tree, the names of birch and withy are widely distributed; the words wolf, the hare, the beaver, the otter, the mouse, feather, neat, are of great antiquity, and night and star, dew and snow, wind and thunder, fire and east, are primitive terms, or ones that descend from early roots.

The greater part of the words which have come to us from this early period are of a homely and some even of a coarse character, and we are not accustomed to feel any specially romantic interest in them. And yet they are of importance as forming the first deposit of human experience in our race of which we have any knowledge; the nucleus of life around which our present civilization has slowly grown. From them we can make for ourselves a dim picture of our primitive ancestors, dwelling in wattled huts, or loading their goods and chattels on their wooden ox-carts, and driving their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep as they wandered out to seek new pasture-lands, and new temporary habitations,

And when we consider that a large part of these words are still spoken, not only almost all over Europe, but in some of the remote languages of the East, we can find in them a bond which makes, if not the whole, at least a great part of the world kin, and joins our English civilization with those of Persia and India. When, too, we remember the unknown antiquity of these words, we come to associate them with the other remains of an unknown past that we still carry with us- old rites which are still practised, superstitions which still haunt our minds, and the antique agricultural implements, the wheels and plough-shares and shepherds' crooks, which we still see in use about us. The XIXth, Century, which has added to modern life many material conveniences, has also enriched it with at least one new way of feeling, one new intellectual pleasure-the projection of our thoughts and sympathies through thousands of years into the primitive past, beyond all dates and records. Our modern knowledge of the antiquity of our Aryan words does much to open for us these vistas and vast avenues of time; and terms like mother, father, brother, sister, night and star and wind are all the more beautiful and dear to us, because we know that they belong to the innermost core of our race-experience, and are living sounds, conveyed to us by the uninterrupted speech of countless generations out of the silence and darkness that he far beyond the dawn of history.

The next step in the history of our primitive civilization is one that we also learn of from the history of language. After an unknown period the Asiatic group, the peoples from whose speech those of the Persians and Indians are derived, split off from the original Aryans; and we find the European races still, dwelling together, and acquiring in common terms that betoken a certain advance in civilization. There is reason for believing that this European branch had made their way from treeless steppes and pasture-lands into a country of forests ; for we find that in this West-Aryan or European period, when the ancestors of the Greeks, the Romans, the Celts, and Teutons were still closely connected, a number of words for trees and birds make their first appearance. Our words beech, hazel, elm, sallow, throstle, starling, and finch have been traced with more or less certainty to this period, and we also find a number of agricultural terms are common to two or more of the West-Aryan peoples—corn and furrow, bean and meal, an ear of corn, the verb to mow, and the old word for ploughing, to ear, which is now obsolete save in certain English dialects, although it is used in the Revised Version of the Bible. This increase of agricultural terms is believed to be additional evidence of the migration, at this time, from a treeless to a wooded country; for nomadic peoples despise agriculture, and only the pressure of necessity will make them abandon for it their pastoral life. It was probably, therefore, when our ancestors found themselves in the dense primeval forests of Europe, with their scanty pasture-lands and stagnant streams and wide marshes, that they were forced to supplement the easy life of shepherds and cattle-breeders by the much more laborious occupations of agriculture. If we are to believe the evidence of language, it is at this period, too, that our ancestors became acquainted with the sea, for which the Asiatic and European languages had no common word. Our word mere, which is still used in poetry and which forms the first part of the word mermaid, corresponds to the Latin mare, from which we derive our borrowed word marine; and salt and fish are terms common to the European group.

At what period this early group of European tribes separated from each other we have no knowledge but it was long before the earliest records of European history that our ancestors made their way into the German forests; while the ancestors of the Greeks and Romans moved towards the shores of the Mediterranean. There are strong linguistic grounds for believing that the ancestors of the Celts and Latins travelled for a while together, and those of the Slays and Teutons, while the Greeks formed a group of their own; for the Celtic languages are believed to be more nearly related to Latin than Latin is to Greek, and the Slav and Teutonic speeches have certain elements in common. But the next important stage in the history of our race is that marked by the group of languages called Teutonic, to which High and Low German, English, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish belong. This third and Teutonic stratum of our civilization, following on the scanty Aryan and West-Aryan deposits, is a very rich one, and shows very marked advances in primitive civilization. To treat the whole subject of Teutonic life would be beyond our limits, but some aspects of it as shown by the common Teutonic vocabulary may be briefly noted. There is a large addition to the vocabulary, not only of forest-terms, names of trees, birds, and beasts, but also to that of agriculture, and a great part of the words we use in farming date from this period. Bowl and brew, broth, knead, dough, loaf, are words common to our Teutonic ancestors, and with hat, comb, and felt, house and home, are marks of an advancing civilization. The word borough was still used for a fortified place, but it had perhaps, even in this early period, come to acquire a meaning something like that of town or civic community; while king and earl show the advance of civil organization, although these words had not of course, like many of the others, the developed meanings we attach to them now. The words buy, ware, worth, and cheap (which originally meant bar-ter) are evidence of the growth of trade, while in the early vocabulary of the Teutonic tribes the sounds and sights of the sea are very apparent, and show how our ancestors, in their home by the Baltic and the North Sea coasts, acquired the arts of seamanship, and that familiarity with natural phenomena which is so important to sailors. The words sea, sound, and island, flood, cliff, and strand belong to this period, and with them ship, steer, sail, and stay. The names of the points of the compass, North, South, East, and West, are a common inheritance of the German languages, and they possess in common, too, words like storm, shower, and hail, the name whale for any large sea-beast, seal, and mew for the sea-gull, and even a name for an imaginary water-demon, which survives in the German Nixe, and in our old and half-forgotten word Nicker.

The discovery of the metals is rightly regarded as a great turning-point in the history of culture; nothing has a greater influence on the development of civilization than the use of metals and metallic instruments; and archaeologists divide the different stages of prehistoric culture according to the presence or absence of copper, bronze, and iron. The primitive Aryans possessed, as we have seen, but one term for metals, which they used to designate copper, the only metal that they knew. But the Teutonic tribes, before our Anglo-Saxon ancestors separated from them, had acquired words for gold and silver, lead, tin, iron, and steel, and the sinister and magical character of blacksmiths in old German legends is a proof of the wonder with which the new art of forging was regarded. Other words that show a great advance in civilization are leech, a healer, and lore, and also book and write-words which have acquired new meanings in the course of time, but which date from this Teutonic period, when, as we know from other sources, the rudiments of the art of writing had been acquired. Book (which is thought to be derived from beech) originally signified a writing-tablet, probably of wood, and write (which is related to the German word Meissen, to tear) meant to cut letters in bark or wood.

If we examine the commonly accepted etymologies of others of these Teutonic words, we can get some little glimpses into the ways of our far-off Teutonic ancestors. We note, first of all, a group of words that seem to have grown out of the experience of those wanderings which were so important a part of primitive life. Fear, for instance, is believed to be derived from the same Aryan root as fare, and could therefore suggest the dangers of travel in the early forests; learn has been traced to an early root meaning to "follow a track," and weary to a verb meaning "to tramp over wet grounds and moors." There are other words that take us back to bygone ways of Iife-our verb to earn, for instance, is derived from an old word meaning "field labour," and is cognate with the German Ernie, harvest; gain, although it has come to us from French, is descended from a Teutonic verb meaning "to graze, to pasture," and also "to forage, to hunt or fish." Free comes from an Aryan root meaning "dear" (whence also our word friend), and meant, in old Teutonic times, those who are "dear" to the head of the household—that is, connected with him by ties of kinship, and not slaves or in bondage. Our important religious word, bless, carries us far back into the pagan and prehistoric past; bless is derived from blood, and its original meaning, which was "to mark or consecrate with blood," is evidence of the ritual use of blood, which is so common among primitive peoples. Our word mirth has been given a curiously psychological derivation, for it is traced, with its related adjective merry, to a word meaning " short," and is supposed to designate "that which shortens time, or cheers.

We must, however, in all these old words, especially those describing thoughts and feelings, beware of the anachronism of reading into them their modern meanings. Thus fear had the objective sense of a sudden or terrible event till after the Norman Conquest; the early meaning of mirth was "enjoyment, happiness," and could be used in Old English of religious joy; while merry meant no more than "agreeable, pleasing." Heaven and Jerusalem were described by old poets as "merry" places; and the word had originally no more than this signification in the phrase "merry England," into which we read a more modern interpretation.

The progress of civilization has been well compared to the course of a river having many sources, some undiscovered; and for historians of culture those points' at which a broad tributary joins the main stream have, of course, an especial interest. We have now traced our ancestors from their original and unknown home, to the coasts and forests of Germany, where, at the period at which we now arrive, they were still savages, in spite of their notable advances in the arts of life, and still dwelt in rude huts or underground excavations, or migrated, as of old, on their ox-carts. They had doubtless borrowed from neighbouring tribes many of their new arts, and learnt from them the use of new products. There are scholars who hold that the knowledge of iron came, with its name, from some Celtic race; and that the word silver was derived from Salube, a town on the Black Sea, mentioned in the Iliad as the original home of silver. The words rat and ape are also believed to be very early borrowings, but their sources have not been discovered; and it is difficult or impossible to trace, in the dark night of prehistoric time, the influences, the contacts with neighbouring peoples, from which these new products and the names of these new animals were derived.

But we are now approaching one of the great meeting-places of history, when our ancestors were about to come in contact with races, and fall under the spell of influences, which were to transform their life in a marvellous manner, and to create, out of ignorance and savagery, our modern world of culture. When the primitive European group of the Aryans was broken up, and our Teutonic ancestors lost themselves for hundreds or thousands of years in the deep forests of Germany, their related tribes, from whom the Greeks and Romans were descended, made their way more or less directly to the Mediterranean; and on these propitious shores, the birthplace of modern thought and life, they came in contact with the ancient civilization of Egypt and the East. They learnt the arts of building in stone, of mining and navigation; they took from the East the beginnings of art, of writing, of mathematics, and built up the wonderful edifice of classical civilization which, first led by Greece, and then by Rome, settled the main elements and outlines of human culture. The light shines very clearly on this page of ancient history, when the highest forms of thought and life were developed in the great centres of Athens and Rome, and spread their luminous influence over wider and wider areas; the darkness in which, on the other side of the Alps, our ancestors were involved, seems pitchy black by comparison, and it would be beyond our task to describe how, little by little, that darkness was partially dispelled. All we can do is to trace, by certain words early borrowed by the Northern barbarians from the polished nations of the South, some gleams of light that penetrated northward in this early period, before the tribes of the Angles and Saxons invaded England. These gleams are faint and uncertain, and there is considerable doubt about many of our earliest borrowings. Taking them, however, for what they are, we may gain a little hypothetical knowledge, at least, concerning this early period. To try, moreover, to arrange the words chronologically is also highly precarious, as there is always the possibility that a word which appears in several cognate languages did not belong to the original stock be-fore their separation, but has spread from one to the other of the tribes since that date.

Following, however, the opinion of the best authorities, we may take the word Caesar, the title of the Roman Emperor, as probably the earliest Latin word adopted into the Teutonic speech. This word, however, in the form in which they borrowed it, has become obsolete in English, and has come to us again from Latin. Other early terms which show some contact with the forces of Rome are of a military character—pile and camp and drake (an old word for dragon), which was borrowed probably to describe the dragon-banners of the Roman cohorts. Drake still lives in the compound fire-drake; pile has since lost its original meaning of "a heavy javelin," such as the Roman soldiers carried; and camp no longer signifies for us battle, or field of battle, and, indeed, only survives in the name of "camp-ball," or, in the dialect phrase of provincial athletics, "to camp the bar"—our modern "camp" being a much later borrowing from the French. Street (from strata via, a paved way) and mile and wall and toll, are also believed to be early borrowings, showing that our ancestors were familiar with the roads, fortified camps and regulations of the Roman Empire. Perhaps even earlier than these are cat, mule, and ass; and a group of words which remain as a testimony of the visits of wandering traders from the South—chest and ark (which meant originally a box or chest) ; pound, as a measure of weight; inch; and seam, an old word for the load of a pack-horse, which still survives in various technical uses. Monger, in ironmonger or fishmonger, comes to us from a borrowing of mango, a Latin name for a trader; copper was perhaps taken from his copper coins, and the word mint (which kept the meaning of money till the XVIth Century) was also borrowed, being derived, like the later money, from the name of the goddess Moneta, in whose temple at Rome money was coined. Among the names for the foreign products brought by these early traders we find wine, and an old word ele, for oil. Pepper is an early borrowing; it has been traced back to India, and is among the first of those ancient, far-travelled words that have come into the English from remote sources in the Orient—words like the later ginger, silk, and orange, redolent of deserts and caravans, far mountains, and Eastern seas. These early words give us a dim picture of Roman traders, travelling with their mules and asses along the paved roads of the German provinces, their chests and boxes and wine-sacks, and their profitable bargains with our primitive ancestors.

Civilization begins, however, not so much by the importation of foreign products (which can be found in the most savage communities) as by the imitation of foreign arts and technical processes. We possess in English a small group of words which show that our ancestors had begun to take this step before they left the Continent. Chalk, in the sense of lime, has been taken as a proof that they learnt the art of building with mortar from the Romans; and they also borrowed the word pit, which seems to have meant, in early times, a well or spring built round with masonry. Table and pillow speak for themselves; mill is an important borrowing, and the word kitchen, kettle, dish, point to a revolution in cooking arrangements. Cheese, and perhaps butter, may be regarded as words whose adoption signifies, not the appearance of new objects, but of new and improved methods of producing them. Other words that show an advance in civilization are connected with agriculture, and especially with the cultivation of fruit-trees. Apple is probably a very early borrowing, but its origin is unknown, although some have traced it to the town of Abella in Campania, famous in antiquity for its apples. Better established borrowings are pear, cherry, and plum, the two latter being ultimately derived from Greek. Our words imp and plant are believed to be early adoptions, and to show that the art of grafting fruit-trees was acquired at this time, for the original meaning of both these words was that of a shoot or slip used in grafting. The German language has preserved some Latin words, proving that the culture of the vine was established at an early date in the German provinces, and poppy and mint are prehistoric borrowings of the names of plants. Anchor seems to be the only sea-term they took from the Latin, for, as we have seen, they had a developed sea-vocabulary of their own.

Although before the lllrd Century of the Christian era the Rhine lands had become a centre of Roman civilization, with Roman roads, fortresses, stone-built houses and marble temples, the above list of words will show that the German tribes borrowed from these rich storehouses of culture only such things as their barbarian minds could appreciate—not ideas, but homely instruments, useful plants, and methods of production. But there are a few very interesting words which made their way into the language at this early date, and which show the beginning of the influence of ideas, and the dawning of that great world of thought and feeling, the Christian religion, which was destined to absorb and transform the primitive culture of these Teutonic tribes. The most important of these terms is the word church, which is in itself an historical document of great interest. While most of the other languages of Europe received from Latin Christianity the word ecclesia for church (as we see in the French église, the Italian chiesa), church (the Anglo-Saxon cirice, circe) is believed to be derived ultimately from the Greek kuriakon, meaning "the Lord's House," a name not uncommon for sacred buildings in the provinces of Eastern Christianity. This Greek word was probably learnt by the German mercenaries in the Eastern provinces, serving, as so many served, in the Roman armies, or by the Goths who invaded lands where Greek was spoken. From the IVth Century onward Christian churches, with their sacred vessels and ornaments, were well-known objects of pillage to the German invaders of the Empire, and the pagan Angles and Saxons borrowed this Greek name for the churches they sacked, centuries before they entered them as believers.

Angel, and less certainly Devil, are words of Christianity which were perhaps directly borrowed from the Greek: the names of supernatural spirits pass easily from tribe to tribe, and these words perhaps reached our ancestors in this way. It is not for more than a thousand years that we find again any direct borrowing from Greek into English, and then the words are taken from books by enlightened scholars of the Renaissance, not whispered from ear to ear by superstitious barbarians.

The Christian Church was divided at this time by the great Aryan heresy, and these Greek words came to our ancestors from the heterodox East. But they were also affected by a second stream of influence from the orthodox Church of the West, which reached them through the Christians of Gaul and Germany; and from these, before they came to England, our ancestors are believed to have borrowed the words alms, bishop, monk, and Minster (the name for a monastery or a monastic church), and also the word pine, from which our verb to pine descends, and which, being derived from the Latin poena, was used in the early Church to describe the pains of hell. It was with these dim and vague notions in their heads that they embarked in their warlike boats to cross the sea to England.

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