Sunday, December 12, 2010


In far northern Alaska there is a small village on the Bering Sea with the ancient name of Shaktoolik. At one time that word meant simply “sandbar”, or “stretched-out place”. Over time, and for reasons which a look at geography will explain, it took on an altogether different meaning. To today’s native people of the far north it describes . . . “the feeling you have when you have been going toward a place for so long that it seems that you will never get there”. The richness and subtlety of the Eskimo language struck me with a familiar ring as I came across that piece of linguistic trivia while researching a totally unrelated subject years ago. It reminded me of a gentle stream near a Connecticut farm where, as a ten-year-old, I spent many happy summer hours grappling for slippery trout with bare hands in the heat of the day. The brook was known to locals as “Noromeoknowhosunkatankshunk” (in American phonetics anyway), an old Abenaki Indian word which meant “water from the faraway hills which shines brightly in the sun as it travels over many rocks”.
I don’t know just when it was that I began to harbor a deep love for language – in particular the language of my ancestry and the land of my inheritance; what some scholars would refer to as “my native tongue”. In some strange way it was while studying high school French that I began to appreciate the intricacies of English, and to relish the unending nuances of meanings possible with a language which invited and welcomed new, invented and borrowed words without hesitation and with no holds barred.
While the roots of English go back to “Indo-European” origins, the influence of a diverse mix of “visitors” to that island realm, as well as an intrinsic Celtic connection, played a role in shaping the dialects and speech of its inhabitants. During nearly 400 years of Roman occupation and rule, Latin left a significant impact with here and there a reverence for ancient Greece evident in root words. The most important contribution to an evolving national tongue came with the Norman conquest of England beginning in 1066 AD, and a major shift in the pronunciation of vowel sounds over the following century or two.
Thanks to that Norman influence, 30% of the words we routinely use today have French roots. Add to that the ongoing invasions by Vikings, Goths and other Germanic peoples including the Angles and Saxons, who saw the British Isles as a steppingstone to the expansion of trade and the growth of empire, and you begin to glimpse a woven fabric with a warp of disparate linguistic strands.
The Normans brought with them a profound respect for the practice of law, and so we got terms like accuse, assault, jury, judge, embezzle, felony, adultery, fraud, liberty, curfew and parliament. William the Lion Hearted and his merry band of conquerors also contributed an interest in animals and the hunt, and they shared words such as bacon, beef, veal, pork, mutton, salmon, butcher and venison. In fact that word – venison - did not refer only to the meat of deer, but any wild game. Venerey meant to hunt.
In medieval England, it became essential among the upper class to follow a rigorous orthodoxy in speaking of animals in the plural. To do otherwise called attention to one’s lack of social graces when dining in company. For instance, one did not refer to a “flight” of crows, (no, no, no), but to a murder of crows. Similarly, you must say a kindle of kittens, a cast of hawks, a rafter of turkeys, a leap of leopards, a skulk of foxes, a peep of chickens, a business of ferrets, a husk of hares a charm of finches and a pitying of turtle doves. Just this morning, I witnessed a dissimulation of blackbirds going by, and listened to a paddling of ducks on the pond, (if they had been in flight it would have been a sord of mallards). My very favorite, for its musical sonority is an exaltation of larks. These and dozens of other animal terms once codified in Old English Primers of Speech, are made immortal by Dame Juliana’s “The Book of St, Albans”, and enumerated with great good humor by James Lipton, in his beautifully-illustrated “The Exaltation of Larks, or The Venereal Game”.
At the risk of being labeled as sesquipedalian, I delight in the exquisite suitability of borrowed words such as sangfroid when describing a friend whose imperturbability leaves me in awe, or doppelganger when observing a stranger in Wal-Mart whose likeness reminds me of an acquaintance who I know lives 3000 miles away. When author Jeffrey Archer characterized a barmaid of generous proportions in a short story as being steatopygous, I had a picture in my mind which no combination of many words could have painted so accurately, or with such lexicological kindness. To have done otherwise would surely have been to indulge in an exercise in Schadenfreude.
What a gift that our native tongue overflows with an eclectic euphony and a delectable diversity which reflect 600 years of open borders in a world of wonderful words!
To quote from Proverbs 25:11 “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”

The American Bison was quickly assigned the term “Buffalo” by settlers, who might not have known they were borrowing a Portuguese/Spanish word for large animals – including antelope. Other words of the same ancestry included alligator, bronco, barbecue, tornado and mosquito to name just a few. (This rampant bull was photographed while enjoying a few minutes of fugacious freedom in the author’s back yard.) Photo by Al

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