Language Purity? Woof!

If you go online to The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank and enter the keyword “woof,” you’ll be taken to a page with a cartoon by Charles Barsotti showing a bird, a pig, a fish, a cat, and a duck all seated at a round table looking at a dog. The bird, the pig, the fish, the cat, and the duck all say “Woof.”

To which the dog replies, “Everybody gets a raise.”

In other words, to get along with the boss, you have to speak the boss’s language.

And that’s why the English language does not have an Academy for Preservation of the Purity of Our Language, as others do. We lost our purity beyond recovery nearly a thousand years ago, when for several centuries the rulers of England spoke French. (Norman French, to be sure, not the dialect of Paris, but French all the same.)

Our native English might have been a chirp or an oink or a quack, but those who wanted to get along with the new bosses needed to add woof to their vocabulary.

A famous scene from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe illustrates the need:

“Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.

“Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.”

“And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”

“Pork,” answered the swine-herd.

“I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles. …

“Nay, I can tell you more,” said Wamba, in the same tone; “there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner. … ”

The underdog has to adjust its language to accommodate the overdog, but not vice versa. With two centuries of this, and with English not taught in schools or used by scholars and copy editors who could sound the alarm and stem the tide, English was flooded with French vocabulary, to the extent that a typical sentence in modern English has more vocabulary of French ancestry than of English.

A wonderful book called Slips of Speech: a Helpful Book for Everyone Who Aspires to Correct the Everyday Errors of Speaking, by John H. Bechtel, published in 1901, illustrates the result. Bechtel advises:

“Rarely use a foreign term when your meaning can be as well expressed in English. Instead of blasé, use surfeited, or wearied; for cortege use procession; for coleur de rose, rose-color; for dejeuner, breakfast; for employe, employee; for en route, on the way; for entre nous, between ourselves; for fait accompli, an accomplished fact; for in toto, wholly, entirely; for penchant, inclination; for raison d’etre, reason for existence; for recherché, choice, refined; for role, part; for soiree dansante, an evening dancing party; for sub rosa, secretly, etc.”

At first glance it might seem that this is an example of defending English against French imports. But the majority of English words he advocates are also from France, merely imported a long time earlier.

Words of French origin: surfeited, procession, color, employee, accomplished, entirely, inclination, reason, choice, refined, part, dancing, party, secretly: 14 in all.

Words of Old English ancestry: wearied, rose (from Latin), breakfast, way, between, ourselves, wholly, evening: 8.

Words directly from Latin: fact, existence.

If you’re an extreme purist, to be sure, it’s possible to construct a modern English sentence that would be understood by speakers of pre-Norman-Conquest-English. If a time warp landed you in England in, say, the year 900, you could chat a little with the natives. You’d have a funny accent, and your grammar wouldn’t be correct, but you’d most likely be understood if you said “That fish is good,” “Your house is cold,” “After the rain and wind comes a flood.”

But it wouldn’t be easy. Reader, try rewriting the preceding paragraph using only words with Old English ancestors. (Find the etymologies in a dictionary.) Anybody up to the challenge?


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