Tuesday 10 May 2016

Double trouble

Now. I'm going to warn you. This may be a bit boring and esoteric for some of you, so if you don't like in-depth, heavy-duty linguistic analyses, then sign off now. Only kidding! Well, OK, this post is a bit more technical, I admit, but bear with me. It's still bloody interesting (well, at least I think so).

If any of you readers are from a part of your country where the dialect of English that you normally speak is not considered “standard”, this is mainly for you. As you may well know, in the UK, we have something known as “received pronunciation”, or “the Queen's English”, which is basically a way of being very snobby. Time was all BBC presenters spoke as if they had just had a suppository shoved up a place where it hurts – and it was still hurting. This dichotomy between the “official” version of a language and the “inferior” dialects is not confined to English. Indeed, around two hundred years ago in France local dialects were flourishing all over the country, until the central government gradually imposed the supremacy of its chosen form of French over the rest.

Indeed, we can see the effects of different Old French dialects in modern English. Yes, after almost a thousand years, we still have that split with us. The Normans spoke a dialect of Old North French, while the standard Old French was spoken further over in the Paris area. The Normans brought over their dialect when they conquered England, but they and their successors also had possessions in other parts of France and brought over settlers and workers from these regions. As a result, different varieties of Old French were spoken in England, and in some cases essentially the same word would enter English at different times, with different pronunciations and different meanings.

Two differences stick out in particular. Firstly, where standard Old French had the “ch” sound, Old North French retained the “c” sound – essentially Standard Old French palatalised many words from Latin with “c”, such as chien from canis, “dog”, and chef from caput, “head”. Secondly, mainly with words borrowed from Frankish, standard French changed the “w” into “g(u)”, while Old North French kept the “w”, hence standard French guerre from Frankish werra, “war”. So, here are some of the most common words which display these differences and still remain part of our language.

In Medieval Latin, capitale was used to denote property and stock. In Old North French capitale became cattle and ended up referring to property with four hooves, two horns and loud moo sounds, while in Old French it became chattel, which came to denote moveable but inanimate property and is now rather dated.

The Latin verb capere, “take”, produced many words which we have taken into modern English. From the Vulgar Latin form captiare came the Old North French cachier, “chase, capture”, which became our catch. What's strange about this verb is that in Middle English it was treated like an Old English verb and developed the irregular past tense caught rather than catched. The same Vulgar Latin verb, captiare, produce chacier, “hunt”, in Old French, which then entered English as chase. So now we have two words, originally with the same meaning, indicating two aspects of the same process: first you chase and then you catch.

Here are two more verbs which have similar histories. Latin borrowed carrus, “chariot”, from a Celtic language, and then provided a variety of modern words from the root, including car, carriage and chariot. Late Latin created carricare, “transport by vehicle”, which became carier in Old North French and Anglo-French, ending up as carry. Meanwhile, from another meaning of carricare, “load a vehicle”, came Old French charger, which came to us as charge. So, although technically taxis charge you to carry you, they could equally do it the other way round, which would be rather interesting.

What's the difference between a castle and a château? Well, essentially they're the same, both coming from Latin castellum, “fortress”, with castle coming into Middle English from Old North French with the Normans, and château coming into modern English directly from modern standard French via posh English holidaymakers (presumably). However, that's not the whole story. Old English had already borrowed castle from Latin with the meaning of “village”, and when the Normans came, castle changed from being a village to being a stronghold, much as we understand it now. In fact, when the Anglo-Saxons first settled in England, they took the Latin castrum, “fort”, and made ceaster, applying it to a variety of places, giving us such place names as Chester, Manchester, Winchester, Lancaster, Leicester, Worcester and Exeter, to name but a few. So a wine called Château Chester would essentially be repeating itself.

Vulgar Latin triccare, “evade, cheat”, became trikier in Old North French, which gave us trick and trickery, which, of course, can range from rather innocuous to rather sinister in meaning. However, its Old French cousin from the same root, trechier, is far more serious, because treachery can see you end up in the Tower of London waiting for your head to be parted from your body.

The Frankish were a German-speaking people who settled in France during the first three centuries CE and gave the country their name while losing their own language. However, they endowed French with many of their own words, with the result that French vocabulary has a sizeable Frankish contingent, much of which is related to Old English. One Frankish word, warand, “authorisation”, took two forms when it entered French: warant in Old North French and garant in Old French. The Old North French gave us warrant, and also produced warantie, which came into Anglo-French and later to us as warranty. Much later, in the 17th century, guarantee joined us from French, thereby giving us two words which have been an endless source of headaches ever since – do you have a warranty or a guarantee, and what the hell is the difference? No answers on a postcard, please!

One last pair shows this “duality” in a way which is really a “triality”. The modern “ward” comes down directly from the Old English weard, “watchman, sentry”, though other meanings have developed over time. Frankish, being a cousin of Old English, gave Old North French the form wardein, which comes down to us via Anglo-French as warden. Of course, Old French changed the Frankish form to garde, which gives us guard. So we have three words essentially from the same root, which still refer more or less to the same thing, but which came to us via three different routes. Some other words from Frankish via Old French are: guise and guide, which are both related to the English wise and wit, ultimately from a root meaning “know” and “see”, and guile, which is related to wile.

So there we are. There's no knowing the path a word will take away from its origins before returning to the fold. Let's be happy that they came back and enriched our language even more.