After learning earlier today that lol means fun in Dutch, I’ve found myself reflecting on my second great special interest: words and language.
I grew up in Lancashire in the North of England where amongst people of my parents’ and earlier generations the use of dialect was still strong. So I’d be taught what was referred to as The Queen’s English at school while being immersed in the local tongue at home. I won’t say it didn’t cause some confusion since it meant that some common items went by different names: trousers at school became kecks at home and you’d better not get it wrong at school, non-standard vocabulary being very much frowned upon.
It did however engender in me a strong interest in words and their origins, which grew as I studied French and Latin along with a little German. I enjoy comparing words in different languages, seeing patterns and links that reveal how words have evolved and changed over time and distance. Take the Scottish word sassenach, a mildly insulting term for a lowlander or southerner (i.e. either English or not a “proper” Scot). The Welsh have a similar-looking term, saesneg, meaning English, in Irish Gaelic it is sasanach, in Cornish it is Sawsnek and in Breton, another Celtic language, it is Saoz. All share a common root: Sahson which was the Saxon name for themselves. This ties in with the Saxon conquest of England where the original Celtic inhabitants were pushed to the western and northern fringes of Britain by the spread of the Saxon settlers.
Dialect can also reflect the history of parts of the country. The Lancastrian word skrike meaning cry or weep has its roots in the Old Norse skrika, showing the influence of the Norse who settled mostly in the north and east of England from the 9th century. Standard English replaced this with cry which has its roots in Norman French, another legacy of invasion and conquest.
So we have this intertwining of language and history in which the origins of words — their etymology — reveal the movement of their speakers across thousands of miles and hundreds of years. I find it fascinating, and hope I’ve managed to convey some of the fascination I have for this subject.
- Oxford Dictionaries Blog is a must-read for anybody interested in language.