Sunday

Sep. 28, 2008

Confederates

by Neal Bowers

My father was only two in 1915
when he sat on Walter Denton's lap
and heard the old man dragging in
his heavy chain of breath, each link
stuttering down the back of his throat.
"Floyd," he whispered, saying the baby's name
like a question, "look yere,"
and he placed my father's hand
on a scar the color of moonlight,
a shrapnel wound from the Yankee boats
that shelled Ft. Donelson.
Then both of them began to cry,
there in the ladderback chair
someone had dragged into elm shade,
away from the stifling house,
until a woman came and saved them
from each other, leaving one
to go into the past and disappear,
the other to follow by way of the future.

"Confederates" by Neal Bowers from Out of the South. © Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Kate Douglas Wiggin, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, (1856), who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and many other novels. She also started the first free kindergarten on the West Coast, in San Francisco.

It's the birthday of Al Capp, born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, Connecticut (1909), who created the comic strip "Li'l Abner."

It's the birthday of the last television host who tried to appeal to everyone in America, Ed Sullivan, born in Manhattan, New York City (1902), who hosted The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS from 1948 to 1971.

It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, and on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abby.

The Norman invasion had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

A heavenly host of ecclesiastical words entered the English language from French following the Norman invasion of 1066, including the word religion itself. When it first appeared in English, religion was used to mean "life under monastic vows." The Old French word religion derived from a Latin word meaning "obligation, bond, reverence."

A life under monastic vows came with all sorts of practices, like saying one's prayers, derived from the Old French verb preier "to ask earnestly." A preiere was something "obtained by entreaty" and of uncertain outcome. This sense of uncertainty is reflected in English words sharing the same root as prayer, including precarious, deprecate, postulate, and expostulate.

The word for preach, however, came from an Old French root meaning not to ask but "to proclaim." The French verb prechier came from the Latin praedicare, to "pre + declare."

The holiness of saint (from Old French seint) can be found in the word's Latin root sanctus, meaning "holy." The English word sanctuary is from Old French sanctuaire, which originally meant a "church or other sacred place where a fugitive was immune by the law of the medieval church from arrest." Related English words include sanctify, sanctity, and sanctimonious.

Merci is a French word still in use, today as the equivalent of the English "thank you" — and in Old French it meant "pity" — just as we still use it in the phrase "have mercy on me." We also use this root when we speak of merciless killings and merciful people.

When Chaucer wrote in the opening of lines of The Canterbury Tales that when April's sweet showers pierce the drought of March and "Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages," it was 300 years after the Norman Invasion, and the English word pilgrim, another French borrowing, was in widespread use. The French word pelegrin — meaning "foreign" — in turn came from a Latin root for "abroad." Pilgrim and pilgrimage have the same root as the English word peregrinate, which means to travel, especially by foot.

One of the most important consequences of the Norman conquest of England was its effect on the English language. At the time, the British were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans spoke French. Over time, the languages blended, and the result was that English became a language incredibly rich in synonyms. Because the French speakers were aristocrats, the French words often became the fancy words for things. The Normans gave us "mansion"; the Saxons gave us "house." The Normans gave us "beef"; the Saxons gave us, "cow." The Normans gave us "excrement"; the Saxons gave us lots of four letter words.

The English language has gone on accepting additions to its vocabulary ever since the Norman invasion, and it now contains more than a million words, making it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. Writers have been arguing for hundreds of years about whether this is a good thing. Walt Whitman said, "The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all." On the other hand, the critic Cyril Connelly wrote, "The English language is like a broad river … being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." And the poet Derek Walcott, who grew up in a British colony in the West Indies, said, "The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself."

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