Donna Brook’s The Journey of English states that the English language contains over a billion words, more than any other language, although we commonly use only about 200,000 of them. Judging from most conversations I hear, we use far fewer than that and I couldn’t begin to quantify how many of those 200,000 I may have encountered this year. Etymology is endlessly fascinating to me and this simple book is a good introduction to the evolution of English from the steppes of Siberia to the fast-food outlets in Guatemala City. It’s interesting to note that English is only about 5,000 years old–and most of that time the language existed in forms unrecognizable to us today. Chinese is approximately 5,000 years old as well but China’s isolation allowed Mandarin to develop in a much more homogenous way.
English is a ragtag vagabond, lurching from central Europe to the British Isles and picking up Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and French coloring through wars and migrations, raids and intermarrying, from Celtic stronghold to Roman Empire to Saxon and Angle conquests. Tracking the words and how they appeared where they did is better brain candy than a crossword puzzle. Old English gave us the days of the week and the words eat and sleep, as well as the great legends that are the basis for many of our defining stories. The imposition of Latinate Christianity gave us angel, purple, silk and school. The Normans handed off French influence in the guise of parliament, liberty, crown, treaty and tax. The Renaissance with its recovered classics infused English with more Latin and some Greek–most English reflects those two languages although the words we use for the lion’s share of our communication, the plainspoken short serviceable words, are from the Old English.
It’s possible to get lost in the origins of English, in the sources for scientific terms and the flourishes of the preserved manuscripts hand-copied by monks and the impressive vocabulary of one William Shakespeare–30,000 words–and the King James Bible. Between the British Empire and the rampant spread of American consumer culture and the web–English can be found everywhere. It travels well and leaves traces behind wherever it goes. We’ve planted a bit of English on the moon. Maybe intelligent beings picking up transmissions from earth in some distant galaxy already speak passable English–there’s a scary thought. But, although I wish I spoke other languages far better than I do, I’m glad I have English to write in and to read aloud. Whether you’re cussing or declaiming poetry, English is a very satisfying language to speak and hear–and read, of course. Just lose yourself in Dylan Thomas or shout out a little Mos Def, grab some Jane Austen. Toni Morrison or Bob Stone. It’s all good. Good–from Old English: “virtuous; desirable; valid; considerable; having the right or desirable quality…”
The Journey of English Donna Brook | Clarion Books 1998