Secret Life Of Words Hardcover – Sep 16 2008
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“Hitchings here provides a colorful, thematic history of the English language . . . Hitchings is a fine writer with an eye for the illustrative detail . . . With ninety-plus pages of notes, sources, and useful indexes, this is fine choice for libraries and a ‘smorgasbord' for language aficionados. Highly recommended.” ―E. L. Battistella, Choice
“A rich and readable history.” ―The Boston Globe
“Astonishing . . . Every page of The Secret Life of Words is stuffed with rewards. . .Painstakingly detailed, closely argued and suffused with a contagious enthusiasm.” ―Daily Telegraph (UK)
“A galloping history of English-speaking people and lists of words they have borrowed or invented.” ―The New York Sun
About the Author
Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. Educated at the universities of Oxford and London, he is the author of Defining the World and has contributed to many newspapers and magazines.
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Thankfully, what could have been a dry and overly-academic narrative is transformed by his style into a journey of discovery. We are at Hitchings' side as he almost literally revels in the discovery of the ways in which military and cultural invasions transformed English (not new or surprising material) to what was, to me, the fresher and more intriguing topic of how English explorers "repatriated" words from other languages they encountered, from the Americas to Japan. That thematic approach avoids another potential trap: the epoch by epoch survey, which also could have transformed this into a tedious read that none but scholars and the most dutiful or stubborn of readers would have completed. Instead, anyone reading this spend hours engrossed in an absorbing book -- and will never look at words and how he or she uses them in the same way again. Hitchings may not write for a scholarly audience, but this is far and away the best book I have read for the curious layperson on the topic, especially as our language is again being transformed by new technology (not just the vocabulary, but usage & popularity) in the same ways that it was reshaped by the advent of the printing press.
Some quick facts: the average Briton, German, or Norwegian uses about 3,700 words daily. The average American uses about 500 words. Yet Americans are no less intelligent or capable than their European counterparts, so what is going on? The answer lies in the history of British English versus American English. The former has evolved over 1,500 years and has enjoyed a relatively stable population in which each speaker comes from approximately the same linguistic background. The former, on the other hand, has evolved largely over the last 200 years and has never enjoyed a linguistically stable population. To borrow a simile from the world of computing, American English is the RISC version of the language: a Reduced Instruction Set Chip that allows for very rapid assimilation and communication - perfect for a nation that is perpetually being renewed by waves of immigration from all across the globe. In a country where someone from Ukraine needs to communicate with a native of Chile and a refugee from Darfur must talk with a shopkeeper born in Canton, a standard lexicon of 500 words and a much-simplified grammar (no adverbs, no perfect tenses, no subjunctives) is just what is required. The cost, however, is a lack of expressive range in American English which results in the speakers sounding simplistic and cliched. But once the population settles down, American English will begin to add unique richnesses of its own, most probably heavily influenced by the Hispanic dialect of Spanish that is common to much of the USA.
What has all this to do with The Secret Life of Words? Simply that Hitchings sets off on a voyage of exploration, and his terra incognita is the English Language. We think we know it, but how many of us are really aware of the meaning of the words we use? Words, when you really know them, are like fish: alive in the mouth, wriggling, subtly shifting shape while remaining essentially whole, but often ready to slip away if left unguarded.
Back in 1954 J. A Sheard published through Andre Deutsch a marvellous little book entitled "The Words We Use." In it he explores the history of the English language and shows clearly how it evolved from the Indo-European language group and kept being re-fertilized by branches of that same family over a 3,000 year period. He was also alive to the effects of trade and conquest, showing how English has picked up words as diverse as amok (Malay) and pyjama (Hindi) from around the globe - a result of British ships plying the trade routes for over 400 years.
Hitchings takes the same basic theme - a history of the English language, centering on vocabulary - and like Sheard explores where words came from and what they reveal about our language and culture. He is not as strong as Sheard on formal analysis (for example, he doesn't really demonstrate how Old English, as a result of the Norse invasions and settlements around the north-east of England led to the shift from English being a largely synthetic language to becoming a largely analytic language (e.g. one in which meaning is determined by word order rather than by suffixes as is the case with Russian, Latin, Greek, etc.). Nor does he really bring alive the great movement of tribes that spread out from the Kafkas, some going west to become the descendants of today's Slavs, Scandinavians, and Latins, while others went east to give rise to today's speakers of Hindi. A few judicious diagrams would really help bring the text alive, but sadly Hitchings doesn't provide them.
Likewise, whereas Sheard enables us to see how language works to reinforce social circumstances (for example, after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon peasants sat on Old English stools while the Norman aristocracy reclined on chairs, and the peasants tended the cows while their masters ate the beef) Hitchings just presents lists of new words. Likewise, whereas Sheard shows how some words re-enter the language multiple times throughout history (by example, the Latin word "capital" yields in English not only capital but also chattel and cattle), Hitchings seldom illustrates the odd yet revealing quirks of language in this way. There is, in short, a lack of compelling narrative in The Secret Life of Words and too much reliance on overwhelming quantities of examples.
Yet despite the shortcomings the theme is sufficient to entice anyone who possesses some curiosity about the wonderfully rich and perverse English language. As he gets into his stride, Hitchings takes us across centuries of experience, showing how the movement of people results in the alteration of language. The chapter titles, which are basically surrogates for organizational sub-themes, may strike some as contrived or even rather shaky ground upon which to build, but by and large the excursions work well enough to carry us along. There's just enough novelty of example to keep the general reader satisfied (after all, who can resist poaching a few fruity examples to use at dinner parties?) and lend us the sense that we are learning as we go. Many of the speculations in his later chapters seem somewhat unconvincing, and he completely fails to analyze the structural issues arising from the diversity of English speakers. He comments that more people speak English now as a second language than speak it as their primary tongue, and he also notes that India has more English speakers than the USA and the UK combined. But he notes only the loan-words and dialect; he doesn't dig deeper to the fundamental structural changes that are turning British English into a minority dialect. The breadth of his learning is everywhere apparent and it is always nice to benefit from someone else's diligent research. Additionally Hitchings' style is light and lucid, never convoluted or overly-formal. But in the end I found myself craving more substance and less surface sheen.
In short, this is a well-informed book that will certainly add greatly to almost everyone's comprehension of the English language and hopefully stimulate greater appreciation of its quirky charms. Yet in the end I will return to Sheard, despite his greater formality of language and more limited scope, because somehow Sheard brings English alive in a way that Hitchings doesn't quite manage. Sheard is more demanding yet in the end far more satisfying, perhaps not least because he ignores his own proclaimed limit (in the Introduction he claims he will focus only on vocabulary) and in fact pushes on into the evolving structure of the language whenever necessary.
Sadly Sheard has been out of print for over forty years and his book is available only through the agency of a well-connected antiquarian book seller, whereas Hitchings is available now. And that alone is enough to recommend his book to everyone who would like to understand why English is what it is, and how it informs the way we think and communicate in this world.
Fewer than a quarter of English words reflect a Germanic origin; the rest have been imposed on Britain by being conquered nearly a thousand years ago, or by conquering or visiting all those centuries thereafter, or by sponsoring successful daughter nations. Our "cheese" is related to the Latin "caseus", for instance, but the Normans gave us plenty of food terms like "gravy" or "mustard". New imports needed new words; walnuts were new to Britain ages ago, and the name is a version of the Old English "walhnutu" which means "foreign nut"; it was from Italy, and the name distinguished it from the native hazelnut. Wherever Britons went, they ate, and they traded foods just as surely as they traded words for them. The Aztecs gave us words for guacamole, for instance, and for the tomato. Initially tomatoes were called "love apples" because of their supposed aphrodisiac qualities; perhaps this is also the reason the humble tomato is called "pomodoro" in Italian, "apple of gold". Another native Nahuatl word we got from Spanish is "avocado", which takes its name from the Nahuatl term for a testicle, because of its shape. Borrowings have to be practical; the native speakers of Nahuatl may have easily been able to say "tlilxochitl", but the pronunciation was indigestible to the Spanish, so a doctor serving in Brazil renamed it "vanilla" meaning "little sheath". That had to do with the shape of the bean's enclosure, but "coriander" comes from its particular scent. You see, it smells just like crushed bedbugs, and "koris" is Greek for bedbug. Not all the words for foods in new lands get adopted; the Hawaiian fish humuhumunukunukuapuaa may be tasty, but no one refers to it.
Words bustled among each other for acceptance. The author of a 1588 memoir of traveling in the New World and noting Algonquin terms could not have predicted that "canoe" and "tobacco" would prosper while "seekanauk", a tasty shellfish, would be forgotten. England had no tradition comparable to the vampire legends of other parts of Europe. When "vampire" was brought into English, in a magazine article in 1732, it filled a need; not only were the vampire legends adapted and expanded, the word was quickly applied to moneylenders or bloodsucking bats. Hitchings produces surprising mini-histories of words on every page here, and increases our wonder at the complexity of the borrowings we have made. France has an Académie Française to try to protect the purity of French against aggressive English terms, but there is no comparable academy to do the same for English. Hitchings shows that there have been many who were disgusted that English was taking so many words from other languages. Doctor Johnson was one; he fretted that there were so many Gallicisms coming into English that his countrymen would soon "babble a dialect of French." He would not include "bouquet" in his dictionary, and groused that "finesse" was "an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language." For once, Johnson missed the point, and Hitchings's book, bursting with etymologies and funny stories about words and word-users, illustrates how rich and complex English is for all its borrowings. Or, as a teacher quoted here wrote in 1582, "Our tung doth serve to so manie uses because it is conversant with so manie people, and so well acquainted with so manie manners, in so sundrie kindes of dealing."
Hitchings has decided to look at history through the rise and spread of the English language - once an agglomeration of angry noises from a few small tribes in what would eventually become Europe, now a tongue that dominates the world. The English language is used by billions, studied by millions more. It's the language of business, commerce, politics, law, entertainment and news, and has spread like no other language before it.
The big question then becomes, How did this happen? How did English become what it has become? What is the history that led it to span the globe, and what qualities does it have that other languages don't? In this book, Hitchings looks at the history of English - and by extension the Western world - through the growth of its vocabulary. Where did our words come from, and what does their journey into English tell us about our own history?
A modern English speaker, equipped with a time machine, could probably go back about four or five hundred years and still be confident that she would be able to converse with people. Maybe not with perfect clarity, and it would be an entertaining thing to watch, but it would certainly be possible. Before that, the conventions and lexis that we are all so familiar with will start to be more and more scarce, and by the time of Chaucer, our time traveler would have a hard time indeed. So, as far as languages go, modern English is a fairly young tongue. Over the last half-millennium or so, the sheer number of words available to English speakers has exploded, mainly due to what some would call the language's "whorish" qualities - English will take up with any other language that comes along, accepting its words and making them its own. By following the spread of English, and the changes that it has made, we can see how people and cultures intermingled in the last thousand years or so.
Hitchings begins at, more or less, the beginning, with the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and its almost immediate conflicts with Norman French and the languages of the invading and pillaging Norsemen. He follows the political swings of English, as the rulers of the British Isles alternatingly embrace and shun the language, until it finally becomes the tongue that defines that tiny island on the edge of the North Atlantic. He looks into Arabic and Latin, Japanese and the languages of the Native Americans. We see the wellsprings of the language of food and music, science, military and law. He introduces us to words that came into English through long and winding roads (one of my favorites is Alcatraz - from the Spanish word for "pelican," which in turn comes from Arabic's al-qadus for "machine for drawing water," which is turn comes from Greek's kados, meaning "jar" - quite a journey for such a miserable place.) The history of the English language is a fractal history, meaning that in order to understand it you also have to understand the histories of a dozen other languages and then the languages that came before them. To try and put it all down on paper is a monumental task indeed.
The study of English words is fascinating, though. I have recently become enamored of the "Way With Words" podcast, which dedicates itself to unraveling questions about English usage. The hosts are funny and engaging, and manage to give a brief history of words and phrases and all the little tics of English that make you annoyed enough to have to call a radio show about it. It's a pleasure to listen to, which is probably why I listened to that show a whole lot more than I read this book.
Mr. Hitchings has done an admirable job with this book, trying to cover all the different avenues by which words came into English. The paths that they followed are fascinating, and the stories behind them are the stories of Western culture and civilization. The trouble is that Hitchings doesn't do all that good a job in making it interesting to the lay reader, i.e. me.
By and large, each chapter deals with a different source of vocabulary or a different time in history, but the narrative that he sets up tends to... wander about. There's no real narrative to focus on, and while I know this isn't supposed to be one, Hitchings is trying to tell us a story. It's a long and complicated one, but it's still a story, and as such needs to flow in order to keep the reader's attention.
I can't fault him for his research or his dedication, but I think he could have given more thought to the organization of the book. Instead of trying to cover as many sources as possible, perhaps he could have narrowed his focus. Instead of throwing out a dozen or so words at a time, he could have given us an in-depth narrative on just a few. Each chapter could probably have been expanded into its own book on the Arabic/Spanish/Latin/German/Greek/African origins of words, and so in reading it you get the feeling that there's so much more that he's glossing over. By trying to follow all the twisted paths of the history of English, it's very easy for the reader to get lost.
All I kept thinking as I read this was that I had much more fun reading Bill Bryson's book, Mother Tongue, which covers the same topic but is much more enjoyable to read, and perhaps that was my mistake. By the time I got to the end, and was more or less just scanning pages so that I could legitimately say I'd finished it, I realized that this is not the kind of book that you settle down with and read all the way through. It's a piecemeal book - pick it up, read a chapter, put it down and leave it alone for a while. When you're in the mood for more language history, pick it up again and read another chapter. Give yourself time to mull it over and digest, and finish it when you finish it.
However you decide to get through it, you will certainly have a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity of the English language, so regardless of how interesting it was narrative-wise, Hitchings has achieved his goal. English is an amazing language, and it behooves all its speakers to learn a little bit more about the amazing confluence of cultures that produced the sounds that you speak every day.
"A new word is a solution to a problem. It answers a need - intellectual, experiential. Often the need is obvious, but sometimes it is unseen or barely felt, and then it is only in finding something to plug the gap that we actually realize the gap was there in the first place."
- Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words
Hitchings examines how the English language has developed over time. He covers thousands of words and myriad circumstances and historical events. Simply fabulous!
Our language keeps changing and adapting. Is it getting stronger? Perhaps. And if you say the word VIAGRA they will think you are speaking Sanskrit. Simply marvelous! Accessible and absorbing.