November 30, 2018
Brexit is in the air, and the discussions and negotiations continue. This letter from my terrace gives yet another point of view, which, as far as I know, has not been mentioned before. It may seem trivial. Perhaps it is, and in no way does it try to explain the referendum result.
Anyway, here are a few thoughts on the subject, my two pennyworth if you like, to stir into the already confused stew.
Ever since William the Conqueror took us into Europe there have been two ways of talking and hence two ways of thinking in our islands. Our language has two distinct threads, and subconsciously we choose one or the other as we go about our business. The choice is never random. We can use words from Anglo Saxon used by Harold who died at Hastings or we can use words from French, brought by William, who defeated him there.
Let’s take that phrase “Keep calm and carry on.” It originally comes from the grimmest days of the Second World War but had another lease of life when its crisp message became well known a few years ago. It then became only too popular. Part of its attraction is the alliteration of ‘keep’, ‘calm’ and ‘carry’. But what also strikes us is the change from the word ‘calm’ to the homely ‘carry on’. ‘Calm’ is from across the sea whereas ‘carry on’ is home grown. ‘Calm’ is from French whereas ‘carry on’ is from Old English, the language of King Alfred. And did he not push back the Danes?
Our many expressions of verb plus adverb are from Anglo Saxon. These are the ‘phrasal verbs’ that so confuse and bedevil learners of English as a foreign language. ‘Go down’, ‘take on’, ‘put off’, and so on. We have the equivalent French words, of course, and this has given us pairs of words for more or less the same thing: ‘go down’ and ‘descend’, ‘take on a responsibility’ and ‘assume it’, ‘put off’ and ‘postpone’. But it has also given us the choice of which one to use. In each case the second option, the word from French, which in turn is from Latin, is for when we have changed into our Sunday best and brushed our hair.
Do you remember the ‘Carry On’ films from the 60s? Would you ever remember the ‘Continue’ films?
With these two sets of words, the home grown and those imported later, we can say most things in two ways. But isn’t ‘freedom’ more familiar than ‘liberty’? In the same way, ‘talks’ more familiar than ‘discussions’, ‘work’ than ‘labour’ and ‘happy’ than ‘contented’?
Shakespeare probably played with words more than anyone, and it comes as no surprise that he makes use of the two streams. What does Macbeth shout in despair when he sees on his hands the blood of the king he has murdered? Will the sea clean the blood from his hand?
“Will all great Neptune´s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”
‘Multitudinous’ and ‘incarnadine’ roll through nine syllables between them. These long, heavy words from Latin begin the idea, but then come the short words from Anglo Saxon to make the point. The blood on his hand will change the green sea to red.
Here is another example of using both sets of words at the same time. What did Dr Watson cry out when he and Holmes shot at the hound of the Baskervilles as it emerged from the fog?
“If he was vulnerable, he was mortal, and if we could wound him, we could kill him.”
Watson started in French but then in his excitement he changed into English. ‘Vulnerable’ became ‘wound’ and ‘mortal’ became ‘kill’. Watson also changed his adjectives into verbs. Action is more dynamic than description.
Going back to Brexit, where we started a few minutes ago, was it just a coincidence that the two options in the Brexit referendum were ‘Leave” and “Remain”? ‘Leave’ is from Old English, and ‘Remain’ is from Latin. So the option to continue in Europe was a word from Europe. When choosing between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’, which word felt the more known and familiar? Why wasn’t the word “Stay” used instead of ‘Remain’? ‘Leave’ or ‘Stay’ could have been the options. That would have made a level playing field for the referendum.
I am not arguing any cause and effect here. I am just making an observation.
Anyway, the date of Brexit is looming. We are leaving not remaining and, come what may, we must tackle the change as best we can. Let us all keep calm and carry on.