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When is a fish not a fish? - MIX conversation session 10/02/2016

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It’s funny how things turn out . . . we started off talking about “franchises” . . . .  specifically the new Hard Rock Hotel which is being built here locally . . . . and before we know it we are onto the Norman conquest of 1066 and who looks after the cows in a feudal society.

And on the way we cleared up the definition of “The English Channel”, often confused with “The Strait of Dover” . . . . which is where they built the Channel tunnel.

I was drawing a map.

(not my map)

Someone had suggested that the word “franchise” sounded French . . . . not English. And indeed, it entered the English language from Old French in the thirteenth century AD . . . . cue the map of the British Isles, replete with lots of arrows, dates and little castles. Let’s have a good look at where English words come from . . . Why are there so many Latin sounding words in English?

So I drew a map with a wall on it, on a piece of paper.

The Roman Empire extended up as far as Scotland where they built a long wall, from coast to coast. It was to keep “the wildlings” out, or the barbarians as they called them. It’s still there if you want to go and have a look [Hadrian’s Wall].  We wondered why the Romans left . . . probably too many barbarians . . . but leave they did. They pulled out sometime in the 5th century AD so they could use their armies to fight off other barbarians, and thus left the poor islands to barbaric, chaotic anarchy for a few centuries.

We talked about the subsequent invasions by the Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes  . . . . these violent thugs ended up with quite a well organised society after about 500 years of being English. I’ve got a lot of time for the Anglo Saxons, they weren’t much good at building castles, but they were more cultured than people generally give them credit. They gave us the English nation and the English language and their politics still influences the world today.

Christianity arrived and monastic life imported from Europe flourished in the 7th and 8th centuries. With King Alfred’s love of learning came the spread of writing and poetry. By the 11th century there was a kingdom.

Then a King died and there was a scuffle between several pretenders and in the year 1066 everything changed.

The Normans invaded and they were very good at building castles . . . . and they never left.

We worked out that the new King Harold, who was someone’s brother in law, must have been pretty worn out after repelling the Norwegians in the north. He rushed down to the south coast with a depleted army and was defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings by William Duke of Normandy’s army, fresh over from France. That's William The Conqueror to us. Well he took over and it took the French about six years to quell all rebellions and establish their rule . . . and even then they needed a brutal feudal society and a lot of castles to keep control of the country. And they did so very successfully for about two centuries . . . and this is when it all happened . . . modern English happened, that is.

During that time England was a tri-lingual society, three languages were spoken widely for several centuries and each of those three contributed about a third of the vocabulary we use today  in modern English.

The rulers, the nobles and the King spoke Norman French (which was just a little Germanic, compared to what they were speaking in Paris) . . . . yes indeed, the King of England could not speak English! We didn’t even have bilingual Kings until 300 years later and the first King whose mother tongue was English was Henry IV who ruled in the 15th century.

But these French tyrants gave us thousands of words like; royal, hotel, menu, romance, courtesy, honour, tournament, virtue, music, desire, passion etc. . . . and lots of castles.

Then there were the natives, the peasants and serfs and lower classes  who spoke English (about 95% of the populace)  . . . which was considered very vulgar. But about a third of our modern English is there, usually short words like; all, house, woman, child, cow, bird, fuck, water, any, more etc.

The Anglo Saxon tribes had also picked up Latin words from dealings with the Romans even before they immigrated to Britain. Words like; butter, camp, cheese, devil, dish, fork, kitchen, sack, street, wall, wine all come from Latin, but they were there even before the Christian missionaries arrived, let alone the Normans.

And then we had the literati.   In the monasteries and the church they spoke, read, wrote and sang in Latin. This is where we get most of the words connected with religion, law, medicine and literature, words like; collect, immortal, oriental, client, combine, expedition, moderate, nervous, private, popular, picture, legal, legitimate, history, library, tolerance, imaginary, infinite, index, intellect, magnify and genius. The Domesday book   was written in Latin.

Then English had a rough time and it almost succumbed and disappeared in the 12th century, but it adapted and simplified and survived. By the time it was fashionable again in the 15th century and it once again became the lingua franca of the country, it was a very different language from the one spoken by the Saxons. For hundreds of years it had existed as the third most important language and was only spoken by the uneducated peasants. During that time it lost all its grammatical complexity and became beautifully simple and flexible.

This history is still visible in English today, just as Hadrian's wall is still visible on the hills of Scotland. I remember once in a restaurant, when I was a beginner at Spanish, saying how delicious the fish was. I called it “un pez”, which was what it said for “fish” in my dictionary. “Este pez es muy rico” I exclaimed. This was met with great mirth . . . that’s not a “pez”, it’s a “pescado” (fished, or caught fish). You see, in Spanish you don’t eat pez! (fish), that’s something that swims around . . . the thought of eating one produced laughter . . . . if it’s dead on a plate it’s a pescado (fish).

Well, likewise in English you don’t eat “cow”. No, no. That’s an animal that wanders around mooing and eating grass.

Of course “cow” is an Old English word and the cow was being looked after by peasants who spoke English. However once it had been killed, cooked and served up on a plate, it was being eaten by the French nobleman and it became le boeuf . . .  or “beef”.

It’s amazing how the brutal and violent feudal occupation and subjugation of the English people a millennium ago is reflected in the way we talk about animals and food today. Similarly, you don’t eat “pig” or “sheep” either (both English words). You eat “pork” or “mutton” (both French words). . . . or bacon, mmmmm.

By this time I was hungry and I had some of Antonio’s homemade Venezuelan arepas. They were baked in the oven, not deep fried and all greasy like the ones in most of the bars around here.

Yummy yummy.


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