Where Did the English Language Come From?: An Animated Introduction

If you've ever deliberately studied the English language — or, even worse, taught it — you know that bottomless aggravation awaits anyone foolish enough to try to explain its "rules." What makes English so apparently strange and different from other languages, and how could such a language go on to get so much traction all over the world? Whether you speak English natively (and thus haven't had much occasion to give the matter thought) or learned it as a second language, the five-minute TED-Ed lesson above, written by Yale linguistics professor Claire Bowern and animated by Patrick Smith, will give you a solid start on understanding the answer to those questions and others.

"When we talk about ‘English,’ we often think of it as a single language," says the lesson's narrator, "but what do the dialects spoken in dozens of countries around the world have in common with each other, or with the writings of Chaucer? And how are any of them related to the strange words in Beowulf?"




The answer involves English's distinctive evolutionary path through generations and generations of speakers, expanding and changing all the while. Along the way, it's picked up words from Latin-derived Romance languages like French and Spanish, a process that began with the Norman invasion of England in 1066. So also emerged Old English, a member of — you guessed it — the Germanic language family, one brought to the British isles in the fifth and sixth centuries. Then, of course, you've got the Viking invaders bringing in their Old Norse from the eighth to the eleventh centuries.

English thus came to its characteristically rich (and often confusing) mixture of words drawn from all over the place quite some time ago, leaving modern linguists to perform the quasi-archaeological task of tracing each word back to its origins through its sound and usage. Go far enough and you get to the tongues we call "Proto-Germanic," spoken circa 500 BC, and "Proto-Indo-European," which had its heyday six millennia ago in modern-day Ukraine and Russia. English now often gets labeled, rightly or wrongly, a "global language," but a look into its complicated history — and thus the history of all European languages — reveals something more impressive: "Nearly three billion people around the world, many of whom cannot understand each other, are nevertheless speaking the same words, shaped by 6,000 years of history."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Earliest Known Appearance of the F-Word, in a Bizarre Court Record Entry from 1310

Photo by Paul Booth

You value decorum, propriety, eloquence, you treasure le mot juste and agonize over diction as you compose polite but strongly-worded letters to the editor. But alas, my literate friend, you have the misfortune of living in the age of Twitter, Tumblr, et al., where the favored means of communication consists of readymade mimetic words and phrases, photos, videos, and animated gifs. World leaders trade insults like 5th graders—some of them do not know how to spell. Respected scientists and journalists debate anonymous strangers with cartoon avatars and work-unsafe pseudonyms. Some of them are robots.

What to do?

Embrace it. Insert well-placed profanities into your communiqués. Indulge in bawdiness and ribaldry. You may notice that you are doing no more than writers have done for centuries, from Rabelais to Shakespeare to Voltaire. Profanity has evolved right alongside, not apart from, literary history. T.S. Eliot, for example, knew how to go lowbrow with the best of them, and gets credit for the first recorded use of the word “bullshit.” As for another, even more frequently used epithet in 24-hour online commentary?—well, the word “F*ck” has a far longer history, granting its apt public use recently by seismologist Steven Gibbons an added authority.

Not long ago we alerted you to the first known use of the versatile obscenity in a 1528 marginal note scribbled in Cicero’s De Officiis by a monk cursing his abbot. Not long after this discovery, notes Medievalists.net, another scholar found the word in a 1475 poem called Flen flyys. This was thought to be the earliest appearance of “f*ck” as a purely sexual reference until medieval historian Paul Booth of Keele University discovered an instance dating over a hundred years earlier. Rather than within, or next to, a work of literature, however, the word appears in a set of 1310 English court records. And no, it is decidedly not a legal term.

The documents concern the case of “a man named Roger Fuckebythenavele.” Used three times in the record, the name, says Booth, is probably not a joke made by the scribe but some kind of bizarre nickname, though one hopes not a description of the crime. “Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator, referring to someone trying to have sex with a navel,” says Booth, stating the obvious, “or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid they think that this is the way to have sex.” Our medieval gent had other problems as well. He was called to court three times within a year before being pronounced “outlawed,” which The Independent’s Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith suggests execution but probably refers to banishment.

For the word to have such casually hilarious or insulting currency in the early 14th century, it must have come from an even earlier time. Indeed, “f*ck is a word of German origin,” notes Jesse Sheidlower, author of an etymological history called The F Word, “related to words in several other Germanic languages, such as Dutch, German, and Swedish, that have sexual meanings as well as meaning such as ‘to strike’ or ‘to move back and forth’” (naturally). So, in other words, it’s just a word. But in this case it might have also been a weapon, Booth speculates, wielded “by a revengeful former girlfriend. Fourteenth-century revenge porn perhaps…” If that's not evidence for you that the present may not be unlike the past, then maybe take note of the appearance of the word “twerk” in 1820.

h/t Rick Davis

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Ingenious Sign Language Interpreters Are Bringing Music to Life for the Deaf: Visualizing the Sound of Rhythm, Harmony & Melody

They are greeted like celebrities, with huge cheers and applause from the audience on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, for example, and it is well-deserved---they're stars in their own right---but you probably won’t recognize their names. They’re American Sign Language interpreters of pop music, and their craft involves not only a mastery of ASL, but also empathy, creativity, spontaneity, dance, and some of the vivid interpretive moves of an air guitar champion (a rare art form indeed).

In the video explainer from Vox above, we meet one of the most talented of such interpreters, the poised yet highly animated Amber Galloway Gallego. She has interpreted over 400 artists---"literally every artist you could think of"---including stadium fillers like Adele, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and, as you can see below in video from last year’s Lollapalooza, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose melancholy “Under the Bridge” takes on an entirely new energy through Gallego’s expressive hands, face, and body (she first appears at 1:22).

As she explains to Vox, ASL interpreters have for years communicated music to their audiences by drily making the sign in English for “Music” and leaving it at that. For Gallego, this was totally insufficient. The deaf community includes “a diverse group of people,” the Vox narrator says, “who have a wide range of residual hearing” across the audible spectrum. And everyone can feel music at certain volumes, especially in a live concert setting. But an interpreter, Gallego suggests, should be prepared not only to translate the lyrics of a song, but also the rhythm and, to a certain degree, the melody and harmony, as well as the general vibe, allowing deaf concert goers to be part of the total experience, as she puts it. (She can even interpret beatboxing.)

Since ASL already incorporates emotive gestures and facial expressions, Gallego simply adapted and expanded these into a repertoire of dance and musical sign. She interprets frequency, bringing her arms and hands closer to her waist for lower sounds and at her shoulders and above for high notes. She communicates pitch and rhythm with her face and hands in ways that both mimic the movement of sound waves and communicate how much she herself is grooving to a tune. “If we merely show the sign for music,” Gallego insists, “then we are doing an injustice as an interpreter.” Be warned, ASL interpreters, she sets the bar high.

To convey the meaning of a song’s lyrical content, a music interpreter must translate a tremendous amount of wordplay, rhyme, and metaphor into a visual form of communication. In the Vox video, Gallego shows how she does this effectively at the speed of Eminem’s motor mouth in a song like “The Monster,” and, though I can't speak to the experience of someone from the deaf community, it's impressive.

Gallego's enthusiastic innovation and embrace of music signing has generated dozens of video interpretations on her YouTube channel (including classics of both Christmas and kids’ music and the irresistible glee of Chewbacca mom). And she has also promoted her rock-star-worthy work to millions on TV shows like Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and, as I mentioned, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where, as you can see above, she tag teams (for the win) with two fellow music interpreters in a battle against rapper Wiz Khalifa.

via Vox

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet the “Grammar Vigilante,” Hell-Bent on Fixing Grammatical Mistakes on England’s Storefront Signs

In the age of Banksy, anonymity, energy, and acting without permission combine to make a potent brew. Those whose work springs up in a public setting overnight, without prior announcement or transaction, are freely assumed to be passionate swashbucklers, brimming with talent and sly social commentary.

But what about an anonymous middle-aged man who roams the streets of Bristol, armed not with stencils and spray paint, but a sponge-tipped broom handle that allows him to correct the improper punctuation on local businesses’ awnings and out-of-reach signage?




The so-called "grammar vigilante," above, became an Internet sensation after a BBC reporter trailed him on one of his nightly rounds, watching him apply adhesive-backed apostrophes where needed and eradicate incorrectly placed ones with blank, color-matched stickers.

While the manager of Cambridge Motors (formerly known as Cambridge Motor’s) hailed the unknown citizen who muscled his splintery wooden sign into compliance with the King’s English, elsewhere, the backlash has been brutal and swift.

The chairman of the Queen’s English Society shares the anonymous crusader’s pain, but frowns on his uncredited execution.

The Telegraph is one of several publications to have called him a “pedant.”

And the owner of Tux & Tails, whose website persists in describing the business as a “gentlemans outfitters,” is angry over what he says will be the cost of restoring a large vinyl sign, installed less than a year ago. “It looks like bird shit,” he declared to The Bristol Post.

On this side of the pond, Erin Brenner, an instructor in the University of California San Diego Extension’s Copyediting Certificate program, comes down hard in her Copyediting blog. In her opinion, there’s nothing to be gained from publicly shaming strangers for their punctuation boo boos:

It is not a kindness—it’s abhorrent behavior…It also gives the world a misguided idea about what professional editors, who are also passionate about language, do. We don’t go around slapping our authors’ wrists in public and telling them how wrong and stupid they are. 

Those with reason to fear vigilante justice for their public punctuation should be advised that the web abounds with apostrophe usage videos, one of which is above.

Watch a longer segment on the Grammar Vigilante here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Albert Camus’ Touching Thank You Letter to His Elementary School Teacher

It’s never too late to thank the teacher who changed your life.

Oprah Winfrey fell to pieces when she was reunited on air with Mrs. Duncan, her fourth grade teacher, her "first liberator" and “validator.”

Patrick Stewart used his knighthood ceremony as an occasion to thank Cecil Dormand, the English teacher who told him that Shakespeare’s works were not dramatic poems, but plays to be performed on one’s feet.




And Bill Gates had kind words for Blanche Caffiere, the former librarian at View Ridge Elementary in Seattle, who destigmatized his role as a “messy, nerdy boy who was reading lots of books.”

One of the most heartfelt student-to-teacher tributes is that of Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher Albert Camus to Louis Germain, a father substitute whose classroom was a welcome reprieve from the extreme poverty Camus experienced at home. Germain persuaded Camus’ widowed mother to allow Camus to compete for the scholarship that enabled him to attend high school.

As read aloud by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, above, at Letters Live, a “celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence,” Camus’ 1957 message to Germain is an exercise in humility and simply stated gratitude:

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don't make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus

The letter was gratefully received by his former teacher, who wrote back a year and a half later to say in part:

If it were possible, I would squeeze the great boy whom you have become, and who will always remain for me "my little Camus.”

He complimented his little Camus on not letting fame go to his head, and urged him to continue making his family priority. He shared some fond memories of Camus as a gentle, optimistic, intellectually curious little fellow, and praised his mother for doing her best in difficult circumstances.

Readers, please use the comments section to share with us the teachers deserving of your thanks.

You can find this letter, and many more, in the great Letters of Note book.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Theater Dictionary: A Free Video Guide to Theatre Lingo

It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your showstoppers are? Or, more to the point, do you know why a musical-comedy writing team seeks to orient its showstopping number at “eleven o’clock”?

The Theater Development Fund’s Theatre Dictionary is an ongoing attempt to define and document theater terms for both the rabble and any budding practitioners who’ve yet to master the lingo.




Each term is accompanied by a loopy slapdash skit. Not all of the performers exhibit the pedigree Veronica J. Kuehn and Nick Kohn of Avenue Q bring to “Eleven O'Clock Number,” above, but casting administrators and ticket booth reps in starring roles lend a homey egalitarianism, such as when students from the Yale School of Drama’s Department of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism are given free license to explore the origins of “vom.”

(This loosey goosey approach also allows for uncredited appearances by other theatrical tropes---the marathon rehearsals where popcorn constitutes lunch and one actor repeatedly complains that his work has been insufficiently acknowledged.)

A “What Does This Word Mean” tab for each term anchors the video silliness, providing historical and anecdotal context. It’s in keeping with the Dictionary’s greater goal of bringing theater to the people, letting everyone play with the toys.

Some of the definitions are practical shorthand…

Others are couched in longtime, possibly archaic theater lore…

I’d exercise caution with some of this lingo. Even though many of these terms are born of practicality, overusing them may cause others to view you as the most obnoxious of self-declared Triple Threats, the kid in the comedy-tragedy mask sweatshirt, prone to belting out the entire soundtrack of CATS at the slightest provocation. (“Thanks, 5!!!”)

Some of these terms have unexpected crossover appeal, most recently Ghost Light, above. Knowing the meaning of the term will help you better appreciate the power of the Ghostlight Project, a post-election coming together of theater artists and audiences in defense and support of vulnerable communities.

You can browse the Theater Dictionary complete glossary here or watch the videos on TDF’s Youtube channel.

The Theater Dictionary’s FAQ contains information on how professional theatre companies and organizations and college-level theatre programs can apply to contribute a video.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Largest Historical Dictionary of English Slang Now Free Online: Covers 500 Years of the “Vulgar Tongue”

greens-dictionary-of-slang

"The three volumes of Green's Dictionary of Slang demonstrate the sheer scope of a lifetime of research by Jonathon Green, the leading slang lexicographer of our time. A remarkable collection of this often reviled but endlessly fascinating area of the English language, it covers slang from the past five centuries right up to the present day, from all the different English-speaking countries and regions. Totaling 10.3 million words and over 53,000 entries, the collection provides the definitions of 100,000 words and over 413,000 citations. Every word and phrase is authenticated by genuine and fully-referenced citations of its use, giving the work a level of authority and scholarship unmatched by any other publication in this field."

If you head over to Amazon.com, that's how you will find Green's Dictionary of Slang pitched to consumers. The dictionary is an attractive three-volume, hard-bound set. But it comes at a price. $264 for a used edition. $600 for a new one.

Now comes the good news. In October, Green’s Dictionary of Slang became available as a free website, giving you access to an even more updated version of the dictionary. Collectively, the website lets you trace the development of slang over the past 500 years. And, as Mental Floss notes, the site "allows lookups of word definitions and etymologies for free, and, for a well-worth-it subscription fee, it offers citations and more extensive search options." If you've ever wondered about the meaning of words like kidlywink, gollier, and linthead, you now know where to begin.

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