This and That Thursday: Where Did English Come From, Anyway?

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The history of English can be divided into three periods: Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English and Modern English. While the language’s evolution was gradual, events in the area of Britain throughout its history caused major changes at three points: around 700 A.D., 1100 A.D. and 1500 A.D.

A group of West Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – arrived in Britain as invaders between 500 and 700 A.D. The Celts who lived in Britain at that time were pushed north and west into what is now Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Germanic peoples spoke what became Old English, which lasted until 1066 when William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England.

After the Norman conquest, Old English evolved into Middle English with the influences of French (and Latin, by way of French) brought by the Normans. For a while there was a class division, with the lower classes speaking English and the ruling and business classes speaking French. Middle English was spoken for around 400 years, from 1100-1500.

Early Modern English is what was spoken during Shakespeare’s time and is dated from around 1500. Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) began. Every English vowel underwent changes in how it was normally pronounced.

From the 16th century onward, the British had more and more contact with the outside world. Along with the Renaissance period, this contact meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that more words were written down. Books became cheaper, so more people learned how to read. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard.

Late Modern English, what we speak today, is really only different from Early Modern English in terms of vocabulary. We have a much larger vocabulary now than we did 500 years ago. This is due in large part to the industrial revolution, when new words were invented to name objects, processes and more that just didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.

American English, incidentally, is much closer to Early Modern English than modern British English. In many ways, the language was “frozen” when it was brought to the new world. A lot of words that are now considered “Americanisms” are actually left over from 17th century English, and while they were dropped by the British, we hung onto them. For example, “trash” is now referred to as “rubbish” by the British, “fall” as “autumn,” and “loan” as “lend.”

Mostly because of the United States’ global influence, English has become sort of the “lingua franca” of the modern age. It is the most-spoken language in the world, and in 3rd place (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish) for native speakers.

Further reading: English Club; Merriam-Webster; The Way We Think About Grammar is Broken

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases, Part 3 – Other Languages

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Read part 1 on Latin phrases here, and part 2 on French phrases here.

Why do most Americans only speak English? I think it’s because we don’t need to learn any other languages. English is the only language most of us will ever use to get through our day-to-day lives.

I know some Spanish and some Latin (a dead language, but hey! It counts), but I’m nowhere near fluent in either – though I’d like to be. I’ve just never had to use a language other than English to get by, so I’ve never been really forced to learn one. I think most Americans are similar. We studied a language in school, maybe even spent a month or two in a foreign country, but in the end never really “mastered” any other language.

Anyway, here are some non-English words and phrases English speakers use a lot. You might have heard some before, but it’s important to know what they really mean before you use them in anything you write – it’s easy to interpret words or phrases based on context, and forget that we don’t know their actual definition.

As always, please comment if you want to add any foreign words or phrases that I may have missed!

Hasta la vista: Spanish – usually used in place of “see you later,” but literally closer to “until the next time.”

Mano a mano: Spanish – directly or face-to-face, usually used in reference to a confrontation or conflict.

Prima donna: Italian – literally “first lady.” 1. a distinguished female operatic singer; a leading female operatic star; a diva 2. a person that’s considered vain, temperamental and/or conceited.

Alpha and Omega: Greek – “first and last” or “beginning and end.”

Hoi polloi: Greek – the common people; the masses.

Mazel Tov: Yiddish – Literally “good luck” – used to congratulate someone rather than to wish them a good outcome that hasn’t yet happened. Consider it more of a declaration that good luck has already fallen on someone and you’re congratulating them for it.

Nota bene: Italian – literally “note well.” Usually used in text, telling the reader to carefully observe what comes next.

Que sera, sera: Italian – this phrase became popular when Doris Day sang the song of the same name for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Literally, it means “what will be will be.” It translates similarly in multiple languages so the exact origin is unknown, but it’s been around for a while: I found an excerpt on the phrase from the World Heritage Encyclopedia, via gutenberg.org, which says it may have originated in either Italy, Spain or France in the 15th or 16th century.

Schadenfreude: German – comes from schaden (harm) + freude (joy). Pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.

Verboten: German – forbidden, as by law; prohibited.

Zeitgeist: German – comes from zeit (spirit) + geist (time). The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of time.

This & That Thursday: The Ampersand

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“And” is the only word that has its own unique symbol. Why, and where did it come from?

The Latin word for “and” is “et,” which when written in Old Roman cursive (uppercase E, lowercase t), looked like &. This is why “etc.,” short for “et cetera,” is sometimes written as “&c.”

The symbol we now know as the ampersand first appeared written on a mural in Pompeii in the 1st century A.D. As the centuries passed, it actually became accepted as the 27th letter of the English alphabet, although it has been dropped from the alphabet in the last two centuries or so.

The term “ampersand” comes from the phrase “et per se and,” which means something like “et, in other words, and” (not a literal translation).

Here is a short video that gives a nice summary of the ampersand’s history.

This and That Thursday: Is it Okay to use Swear Words in Writing?

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Is it okay to use swear words? Like with most questions about writing, the answer to this one depends on your audience.

Most magazines, newspapers and other publications have a formal policy addressing the use of profanity. For instance, The New York Times has a pretty strict no-swearing policy. But some argue that these policies are too restrictive and some banned words are not actually that big of a deal.

For your own writing purposes, you can really do whatever you want. It all depends on who your audience is and whether they will be alienated by or feel uncomfortable with swearing. I keep my blog free of any language I wouldn’t want my mom hearing from me (and no, it’s not just because she reads my blog). I am writing to a wide audience and want my content to be accessible to kids, students, adults, and other bloggers, to name a few. A large portion of my target audience would be alienated by bad language, plus what I write about doesn’t really necessitate the use of obscenities, so I just don’t use them.

To figure out what’s right for you, think about your readers. Will they find the use of bad language amusing, or will the be put off by it? Are you trying to make a point which is emphasized by the use of profanity? Are you looking for shock value? Do you have readers whose computers are controlled by their parents? Would swearing fit the tone of your writing?

It’s up to you, but this is a choice that can really divide your audience, so be careful!

Phrase Friday: Non-English Phrases Used Frequently by English Speakers, Part 1 – Latin

Americans have a habit of using certain words and phrases from other languages, and we particularly love to use Latin and French. Italian, though less common, is also sometimes appropriated by English speakers, as are Greek and Spanish. While there’s nothing saying you shouldn’t use non-English phrases in your writing, it is important to know the correct spelling and meaning before you use them. Today I’ll cover Latin phrases, and next week I’ll talk about French ones. The following week, I will tell you about the less common phrases from other languages.

  • Ad absurdum: literally “to the point of absurdity” – used the same way you would the English phrase.
  • alma mater: “nurturing mother” – the school from which one graduates
  • cum laude: “with honor” – used in diplomas to grant special honors to those with above average grades
  • verbatim: in exactly the same words; word for word
  • E pluribus unum: “out of many, one” – the motto of the United States
  • status quo: the existing condition or state of affairs
  • Caveat Emptor: “let the buyer beware” – the principle that the seller of a product cannot be held responsible for its quality unless it is guaranteed under a warranty
  • tabula rasa: “blank slate” – a mind not yet affected by experiences, impressions, etc; anything existing undisturbed in its original state
  • ad nauseam: endlessly, to the point of nausea
  • carpe diem: “seize the day” – enjoy the day, take the opportunity
  • tempus fugit: “time flies”
  • bona fide: made or carried out in good faith; genuine; sincere
  • non sequitur: an idea or statement that does not follow logically from evidence
  • id est: “that is” – that is to say; in other words. Frequently abbreviated as i.e. (see last Friday’s post on i.e. and e.g.)
  • terra firma: “solid ground” – often used when referring to being back on land after traveling by boat or air.
  • vox populi: “the voice of the people” – popular opinion or sentiment
  • ad hoc: for a specific purpose or situation; improvised – outside the usual routine. For example, an “ad hoc” project at work would be something you are not normally assigned to do.
  • magnum opus: the greatest work of an artist, writer, or composer; masterpiece
  • persona non grata: an unacceptable or unwelcome person
  • quid pro quo: “this for that” – something given in exchange for something else
  • modus operandi: “Mode of operation” – the typical or usual way of doing something
  • mea culpa: “my fault” – an acknowledgment of error or guilt

Further reading: Daily Writing Tips (this site doesn’t tell you what language the phrases come from, but many of them are obvious and at least it gives decent definitions).

Phrase Friday: E.g. and i.e.

These two abbreviations are often used interchangeably or confused for one another. However, while they both come from Latin phrases, they actually have completely different meanings.

E.g. comes from the phrase “exemplo gratia,” meaning “for example.” Only use this phrase where it would make sense to replace it with “for example.” For example (haha), “Hannah is a prolific artist, but she only paints scenery, e.g., beaches and forests.” In this sentence, beaches and forests are an example. Maybe Hannah also paints city skylines and mountains; the speaker in the sentence is not trying to give a complete list.

I.e. comes from the Latin phrase “id est,” which means “that is.” Only use it when you are drawing a direct relationship between the preceding clause and the following one. For example, “Sam works in information technology – i.e. he fixes computers.”