Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fun with Latin

There's nothing like Latin to express high-flown ideas or attempt to impress listeners with one's sense of superiority. Most of the high-falutin' words in English are derived from Latin. Many ordinary words are, as well, but there is a cultural divide in English etymology (which comes from Greek through Latin).

An interesting explanation of this phenomenon comes from Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe. English society in the time period of the novel was sharply divided between the Anglo-Saxon peasantry and the Norman-French ruling class (remember 1066 and all that*?). The animals that the peasants raised were called cows (Old English cü), but the food that ended up on the nobility's trenchers was beef (Middle French boef, from Latin bos).

The Norman Latinate influence was important, but so was the fact of medieval life that the language of the learned was Latin. Even into the 20th century, Latin was the lingua franca (Latin through Italian) of church and law. For centuries, scholars routinely have gone to Latin or Greek to create words to express new ideas.

The result is that more than half of English words are drawn from Latin. That is misleading, though, because so many of those are $20 words that are rarely used. Ordinary words—house, day, dog, cloud, dirt, man, floor—are usually Germanic. When we speak plainly, we are speaking 21st century Anglo-Saxon. And it is no accident that in former, more polite days, profanity was delicately referred to as an Anglo-Saxonism. When we refer to it we speak Latin—profanity from Latin profanitas. When we commit it—fill in your own favorite—we are pure Anglo-Saxon.

I have always enjoyed Latin-derived words and phrases that sound great tripping off the tongue. In college, I yearned for a T-shirt with a wonderful phrase I learned in biology or anthropology—"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." It was not that I advocated that since-discredited view that human embryos go through stages that reflect evolution of species, it's just that it was fun to say.

Later I found the luminous phrase "immanentize the eschaton." I actually came upon this gem again in a column by Jonah Goldberg just last week—"When we try to create heaven on earth, we are immanentizing the eschaton." That's pretty much the definition.

Even when you know what these phrases mean, it isn't in the sense that you understand simple English, like "get out" or "I'm hungry." You have to peer around those words to the meaning, rather than the words disappearing into meaning, as with simple words. That's why they are fun! Go ahead, roll them around on your tongue. See what I mean?

*1066 and All That is a small book satirizing/mangling English history. The subtitle is A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember: including 103 good things, 5 bad kings and 2 genuine dates.

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