Thursday, February 07, 2008

History, language, and the quiche

As you all know, English has borrowed thousands and thousands of its words from other languages. You can trace some of the history of a people through the types of words it has borrowed. I went to a pretty cool lecture last semester by an anthropologist who traced the homeland of the Indo-European ancestors by the borrowing of various words related to weaving and when the corresponding inventions occurred. You can see some English social history by looking at words as well.

For instance, most of the words in English starting with the "sk" sound aren't from Old English. Instead they were borrowed from the Scandinavian languages of the Viking colonists who settled in the Isles in the last half of the 1st millennium. (Yes, that was my way of getting out of not knowing the exact century. I'd guess 8th or 9th, but maybe earlier?) This includes very basic words like 'sky' and 'skirt'. 'Sky' is particularly remarkable. Some types of words are quite easily borrowed. When words are created for new technologies, the other culture often borrows the word as well as the technology. Hence, English terms for computer stuff dominates around the world, because the other cultures had no other terms before. But every culture has a word for the sky (and rain, and girl, and boy, and mother, and dirt, etc.) already, so it's borrowed less often. The fact that English speakers did take the term for sky from Viking colonists reveals that after a bit of time, those colonist were highly integrated into everyday English life.

The greatest borrowing of English vocabulary is, however, from French due in large part to that whole Battle of Hastings thing where William the Conqueror left Normandy and captured the southern parts of Britain. A majority of Modern English words are French in origin. But the French terms in English aren't distributed like the Viking ones are. One way to see this is with food.

In French:

a pig in the field: porc
a pig on the dinner table: porc

a cow in the field: beouf
a cow on the dinner table: beouf

a sheep in the field: mouton
a sheep on the dinner table: mouton

Compare to modern English:

a pig in the field: pig
a pig on the dinner table: pork

a cow in the field: cow
a cow on the dinner table: beef

a sheep in the field: sheep
a sheep on the dinner table: mutton

As you can see, in French they use the same word for the live version and the tasty version, while in English we kept the English terms when the animal is walking around, but borrowed the French ones for meals. This gives a clue to where English people were running into French speaking people. It wasn't on the farm; it was inside the manor. French terms also dominate politics, legal institutions, educational and medical environments. In other words, the French people were in charge, running the institutions of power and the English folks were serving them beef bourgignon in the manor hall.

Turning now to the famous quiche, the French are famous in the English-speaking world for being great chefs, a land of lovely French cuisine. It's no accident that Pixar's Ratatouille was set in Paris and not Liverpool. I've been to both the UK and France and, well, the French food sure did seem better overall. As much as I do appreciate a pint of hard cider, some Shepherd's pie, and even a ploughman's sandwich, I could do without ever eating kidney pie, mincemeat, most pasties, and the god awful fried food served at the Kings College refectory (cafeteria) again in my life.

And yet I also wonder how much the legacy of English history still lingers in our ratings of national cuisines. Starting a thousand years ago, people were trained that fancy food for banquets was French in design and went by the names of boeuf, porc, and mouton. I can't imagine that plays no role at all in our thinking.

7 comments:

ril said...

You don't like pasties? Really?

My must have comfort foods when I visit England:

Pasties
Pies (but no kidney; with you there)
Scotch Eggs
English Cheeses

Oh, and proper Indian food, of course.

pacatrue said...

Alright, I may be remembering pasties wrong. It's been several years since I visited. In my head, I'm associating pasties with pies, but certainly could be off. I was trying to come up with something that isn't patently weird by American standards like blood pudding.

And, yeah, I also almost added that English food is pretty dang tasty nowadays, since it's all Indian.

ChristineEldin said...

I love this post.

I cannot take English food, and I love to eat.

What were you going to say about quiche?

Robin S. said...

Mmmmmm. English cheeses are so good. I'm not a pasty lover - maybe i've had the wrong ones- they seemed dry and boring. Love the beer. Brains Dark. Can't remember the name of the lighter one I have. I'm rarely the one who ponies up to the bar to order it.

And OK, English food isn't stand out. But there's nothing like going down to a neighborhood pub for fish and chips and those mushy peas they have.

And the curries can be fantastic.

Really interesting 'language weaving' post, paca. The "sk" words, the French insertion, etc.

Does the person who lectured on homeland tracing have anything published on the subject? I'd like to read more.

moonrat said...

in chinese there are at least 16 ways to say "rice noodle" and [to chinese people, at least] they all mean something different.

this is why i haven't been to china.

Precie said...

More more more! I LOVE linguistics. The Norman Conquest. The Great Vowel Shift. The impact of linguistic changes on social interaction. Bring it on.

writtenwyrdd said...

for the record, the best meal I ate in England was home cooked steak and kidney pie. Yum!

My favorite example of how language changed after the Norman takeover was how the Saxon word for throne (stool) changed from the throne, to the small object feet rested upon, to the thing in the bathroom to the product of the bowels. (It's odd, the silly factoids that linger in one's brain.)

I really appreciate your observation about looking at language changes to indicate the social interactions. That's something I'd never heard or noticed before, and it's really a useful idea for world building! Thanks!