Like all things, English has changed and developed over time. Though it began as a German language, many words are taken from Latin and French. The grammar is also from other Germanic languages, but neither is it much like that of Romance languages. Romance languages, like French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian, come from the far western reaches of the Roman empire, where people spoke common, or vulgar Latin.
As its name suggests, the English language began in England. Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, from whom we get the word English, and Jutes) came to Britain from around 449 AD, pushing out the Celtic Britons or making them speak English instead of the old Celtic languages. Some of the Celtic languages, like Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Scottish Gallic, are still clinging on today. The Germanic dialects of these different tribes became what is now called Old English. Old English did not sound or look much like the English spoken today. If a time machine dropped out off back then, and you didn’t immediately kill them with disease, you’d be unlikely to understand more than a few words.
Many other people came to England later at different times, speaking different languages, and these languages added more words to make today’s English. Around 800 CE, Danish and Norse pirates, also called Vikings, came to the country, established Danelaw. Bonus fact: Not all Nordic people were Vikings, not even the Vikings. The word viking is a verb, to leave one’s home for adventure and fortune, and those who did it were vikingrs. The vast majority of the population were farmers and tradespeople, like in every country at the time. So, English got many Norse loanwords from these North Germanic languages. I’ll dive deep into loanwords shortly (though of course, shortly if how I do everything).
When William the Conqueror took over England in 1066 AD, he brought his nobles, who spoke Norman, a language closely related to French. English changed a lot from that point because all official documents were written in Norman French. English borrowed many words from Norman at that time, and also began to drop the old word endings. This was Middle English, the period of Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. If a time machine dropped out off, and they didn’t immediately kill *you with disease, you’d be able to pick out a few more words you recognize.
English continued to take new words from other languages, mainly from French (around 30% to 40% of its words), but also Chinese, Hindi and Urdu, Japanese, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. Scientists and scholars from different countries and cultures needed to talk to one another, so they name things in the languages they all knew: Greek and Latin. Those words were absorbed into everyday English, such as photograph (“photo-” means “light” “and “-graph ” means “picture” or “writing”, in Greek). So, English is made of Old English, Danish, Norse, and French, and has been changed by Latin, Greek, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Dutch and Spanish, and some words from other languages. Simple, right?
As the vocabulary swelled, English grammar slimmed down and simplified. The classic example is the loss of case in grammar. Case means the role of a noun, adjective or pronoun in a sentence. In Latin, with its nominative, dative, genitive, etc, this is done by adding suffixes, but English just uses context.
If you’re wondering where Shakespearean English falls in the timeline, that’s considered Early Modern English. Apart from words we don’t use anyone and ones that have completely changed their meaning, Early Modern English sounded different because of the “great vowel shift”. This was the gradual change in the pronunciation of long vowels, moving them from the front of the mouth to the back over the course of a century or so. “House” used to be “hoos,” “one” was “own,” “plead” was “pled” and so forth. Check out the great NativLang video linked in the show notes for more. If I forgot to put the link in or your listening app doesn’t support html, gimme a holler on FB&IG/YBOF or on twitter.com/brainonfactspod. So, if your time machine let you out here, you’d probably get by about as well as you did reading Shakespeare in high school.
“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them down, and goes through their pockets looking for loose grammar.” Our language sucks up words from other languages like a vacuum. For example, over 1,700 words that are shared between English and French. In short, loanwords are adopted from one language and incorporated into another without translation; they simply become part of that lexicon. English has lent words to other languages too, especially in the modern technological era, with things like ‘e-mail’, ‘computer’ and ‘mobile.’ But it’s not a new phenomenon and it’s not just tech. For example, after Friday, the French enjoy le weekend. Japanese has taken on a lot of English.
The word loanword itself is borrowed from another language. It is a calque, or loan translation, a word or phrase which borrows its meaning from another language by translating into existing words in the target language. These do need translating still and it is important that translators know the difference. For example, to lose face is a translation of the Chinese diūliǎn and commonplace is a calque of Latin locus commūnis, referring to a generally applicable literary passage, itself is a calque of Ancient Greekkoinós tópos.
The examples of words in English borrowed from French, German, Spanish and Italian are numerous. This is hardly surprising due to the close geographical ties that the countries and, therefore the languages, traditionally share. But these close relations are by no means the only languages that have contributed words. For example, ‘ombudsman’, ‘ski’, and ‘smorgasbord’ arrive from Scandinavia. ‘Icon’, and ‘vodka’ arrive from Russia, and ‘avatar’, ‘karma’, and ‘yoga’ are Sanskrit words,
German has given us words of many types, but food words are by far the largest category: knackwurst, liverwurst, noodle, pumpernickel, sauerkraut, pretzel, and lager. There are also sciency type words, like feldspar, quartz, and hex. It’s even lent us the names of some dogs, not only the obvious dachshund, but also poodle, which I would have laid money was French. A great deal more German words came over during the last century, what with those pesky world wars. That’s where we got blitzkrieg, zeppelin, strafe, and U-boat, but also another round of food words, like delicatessen, hamburger, frankfurter *and wiener, bundt as in the cake, spritz as in the cookies, and strudel. And let’s not forget about kindergarten for the children and Oktoberfest, which is actually celebrated in September, for the adults.
Bonus fact: the second most common language in the US used to be German. It was so prevalent in some parts of the country that entire city governments operated in and school systems taught exclusively in German. This was prior to WWI. When the war started, official use of German was fazed out quickly.
You have the Dutch to thank for many of the nautical terms you’ve heard in your lifetime. Avast, boom, bow, buoy, commodore, cruise, dock, keel, keelhaul, reef, skipper, smuggle, tackle, and yacht are all Dutch words. Even words like freight, scoop, leak, scour, splice, and pump. If you work with fabric, you may used duck fabric, made sure the nap of the cloth was going the right way, and you’ve certainly had your spool run out at a bad time. The mother tongue of Van Gogh also gave us easel, etching, landscape, and sketch. War pops up yet again in the form of holster, furlough, onslaught and others. Let’s go back to food, where Dutch gave English the words booze, brandy, coleslaw (which I thought was German), cookie, cranberry, crullers, gin, hops, and waffle. The terms Dutch treat or Dutch courage are not only not loan phrases, they are old-timey sarcastic insults, so let’s try to stop using them.
How much Hindi do you know? A lot more than you think. You wake up in your bungalo with its chintz curtains, change out of your pajamas, and into your dungarees and fetching bandana, because you’re all about that thug life, up until you realize you forgot to shampoo your hair and no one put away punch from the party last night. But you’re fierce, you’re a juggernaut. You hop on your train to the city for your day in the concrete jungle.
Speaking to African languages as a broad group, which they are, English has taken the words banana, banjo, boogie-woogie, chigger (which as nasty little tick-like things), goober (what they used to call peanuts), gorilla, gumbo, jazz, jitterbug, jitters, juke (as in -box), voodoo, yam,
zebra, and zombie.
Lumping another vast and diverse group of people’s languages into one paragraph are the loanwords from North American natives. There are hundreds or even thousands of place names that use the original word of the people that were driven out of them: Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatchewan (which boasts a town called Moosejaw) and the names of more than half the states of the U.S., including Michigan, Texas, Nebraska, and Illinois (which I assumed was French. The city of Detroit is French, though, it means the narrows). Native languages also gave us food words avocado, chocolate, squash, pecan, potato, tomato, chili, and cannibal (sort of, you heard about that in this year’s Halloween episode, Cannibal! The podcast). There are animals names like chipmunk, woodchuck, possum, moose and skunk. As well as canoe, toboggan, moccasin, hammock, hurricane, tobacco, tomahawk and the turtles known as terrapins.
A brief aside on one word in particular, squaw. Some of you may have cringed when you heard it. Oh no, you say to yourself, Moxie doesn’t know that squaw is a slur, like calling a Roma person a Gypsy. That’s not wholly true, though. First and foremost, regardless of what a word is, where it came from, or what it meant originally, if you are using a word as an insult, it’s an insult. There *are those who use the word squaw to demean Native women. That aside, people believe that squaw is inherently insulting, because it comes from the Mohawk ojiskwa, a vulgar word for female genitalia. This is highly unlikely, since in the Algonquin language family, squaw means simply woman, or young woman in certain dialects. It is in no way pejorative and was even used in missionary translations of the Bible. It can be seen in that context in writings dating back to the 1600s. There is even a push to reclaim the word and remove its stigma. As one Abenaki women writes, “When our languages are perceived as dirty words, we and our grandchildren are in grave danger of losing our self-respect.” The full article will be listed in the sources on the website if you’d like to read more.
This episode makes me excited for two reasons. First, the topic was the first to be voted on by our patrons at patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts. *All patrons, regardless of contribution level, get to vote on an episode topic once a month. Second, I get to talk about Yiddish! I freaking love Yiddish. You should use as many Yiddish words as you possibly can.
Let’s start the explanation of what Yiddish is by telling you what it is not. Yiddish is not Hebrew. Though they are both historically used by Jews, they are not the same language, though they do share an alphabet that contains no capital letters and are read from right to left. The reason the two are often linked in people’s minds is that Yiddish speakers have usually learned how to read Hebrew in childhood, since holy texts and prayers are written in classical Hebrew. But this form of Hebrew is very different from the modern Hebrew used in Israel, which few Yiddish speakers speak or understand. Linguistically, Yiddish and Hebrew are as different from one another as Japanese is from Chinese. Yiddish is however quite similar to German, which makes sense, since both are Germanic languages. The word “Yiddish” is the Yiddish word for “Jewish,” so it is technically correct to refer to speaking Yiddish as “speaking Jewish,” but the average person is likely to misinterpret that, so probably better not to. You can think of Yiddish as the international language of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, who typically spoke it in addition to the dominant language in their area. It is generally believed that Yiddish became a language of its own some time between 900 and 1100 C.E., but it was primarily a spoken language rather than a written language. At its height less than a century ago, Yiddish was understood by an estimated 11 million of the world’s 18 million Jews. Now, due largely to WWII, three times more people speak Hebrew than Yiddish. Less than a quarter-million people in the United States speak Yiddish, about half of them in living in Texas. Just kidding, it’s New York. Where else was it going to be? In recent years, Yiddish has experienced a resurgence and is now being taught at many universities, and there are Yiddish Studies departments at Columbia and Oxford, among others. Yiddish is referred to as “mame loshn,” which means “mother tongue.” It isn’t entirely clear whether this is a term of affection or derision. Mame loshn was the language of women and children, as opposed to loshn koydesh, the holy tongue of Hebrew that was studied only by men.
Unlike English, Yiddish is a gendered language and the gender of the noun alters the words around it. For example, the word for “the” changes to der yingl (the boy, masculine); di mame (the mother, feminine); dos kind (the child, neuter). Plural has changes the definite article, as in di kinder (the children). Where English generally sticks to -s or -es to make plurals, Yiddish uses, -n, -en, as in shuln (schools), nodlen (needles), -er, as in kinder (children), hayzer (houses), -s, -es, as in fishers (fishermen), zaydes (grandfathers), -ekh, as in shtetlekh (towns), and -im, as in khaveyrim (friends). Did you need all that minutia? No. Did I include it because I wanted to speak more Yiddish? Yes.
Now let’s get to the Yiddish you’re speaking without even knowing it. It’s nearly December when this episode comes out, so I’ll quote a line from near the end of the Bill Murray classic Scrooged. “The Jews have a great word – schmuck. I was a schmuck. Now, I’m not a schmuck.” Schmuck is a word for the male member, as it putz, schvantz, and schlong. You’d one of those to schtup. If you think I’m being too bold, you might give me a slap on the tuchis. What can I say, I’ve got a lot of chutzpah. And it kills me to hear people say “chootspah.” Oy vey. When you see the ch, give it a hhhh. Maz’l tov, now you sound like a real mensch, less of a goy. We should go out for a drink and a nosh, maybe a bagel and a schmear. Can you pay? I’m flat broke this week, I got bupkes. And can we drive? The coffee shop is a bit of a schlep. It’s nice; I had a meeting there when I was trying to schmooze a new client. I go through my whole spiel and I’m super nervous because he’s not reacting. I’m thinking, I’m such a yutz, I said the wrong thing. I’m schvitzing like crazy, panic sweat all in the armpits. Finally, he says “Yeah, I like your shtick.” I could have plotzed! I don’t think I could work at a coffee shop, though. I’d be spilling drinks all over people, I’m such a klutz. Plus, you hear these coffee mavens talk about this one’s Indonesian, this one’s Sumatra; they all taste like burnt bean water to me. C’mere, bubeleh, you got a little schmutz on your face. There ya go. Can we swing through a gift shop or something? I need to get a little tchotchke for my Bube. Not too expensive, but nothing schlocky. It’s for her 90th birthday. She likes schmaltzy things, like Hummel figurines and big-eyed kids paintings. That meshugenah cat of hers likes to go through her mish mash of figures and knock them off the mantle one by one. He looks at you while he’s doing it, the nudnik. That’s not kosher. And like a schnook, Bube just buys more stuff for him to break. I’d give him such a spritz. Feh!
There are more, of course. A yenta is a gossipy woman, usually old. Zafdig, meaning appealing plump of figure, but I couldn’t work them into the story. Glitch is also Yiddish, though it originally meant a slip-up. Would have been geshmak if I could have gotten them all. There are a lot of schlemiels, schmendricks, and schlubs in the world, but you know where you won’t find one? In the exalted ranks of our Patreon patrons.
Bonus fact before we leave the yiddishkeit, the intro to the classic TV show Laverne & Shirley begins “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” Schlimazel means a quarrel or a fight. Hasenpfeffer isn’t Yiddish; it’s a type of German stew, usually made with rabbit. I’m going to break further for one of my favorite jokes. A rabbi walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder. The barman says, “Where did you get that?” The parrot says, “Brooklyn. There are hundreds of them.” [rimshot]
If you’ve been binging Your Brain On Facts, first of all, welcome and thanks for listening. Secondly, you’ll notice an incidental, accidental theme when I announce the next topic… [drumroll] Polari. Polari isn’t technically a language. It’s a cant, a cryptolect, also sometimes called an anti-language. It’s a system of slang based on the speaker’s native language that is used by a select group. For gay men in Britain before 1967, Polari wasn’t just a cute jargon, like Pig Latin. It was absolutely necessary.
Being gay or even being *perceived as gay could land you in prison. In fact, gay culture was so supressed that newspapers would rarely report on gay people who were arrested for “gross indecency.” It was taboo to even write (or speak) the words “gay” or “homosexual.” Gay people needed a way to communicate about their relationships and the other aspects of their lives without being understood by eavesdroppers. Polari came about as a form of insider slang, built from many different languages, shifting and changing as it evolved. Language professor Paul Baker summed Polari up in his 2002 book “Polari—The Lost Language of Gay Men,” it was a lingo of “fast put-downs, ironic self-parody and theatrical exaggeration.”
Although Polari saw the height of its popularity in the mid-20th century, its roots are much older. A similar argot called Parlyaree had been spoken in markets and fairgrounds at least as early as the 18th century, made up partly of Romany words with selections from thieves’ cant and backslang – words that are spelled and spoken phonemically backwards, such as yob for “boy” and riah for hair. As its use spread, it picked up pieces of French, Yiddish, Italian, Shelta (the language of the Irish Travellers), London slang, and Cockney rhyming slang, among others. Let me divert a second to explain Cockney rhyming slang. That’s the slang of the working class of London that didn’t just replace words with other words, but with entire phrases, then shortened them. For example, the word for telephone is dog. The first step was to rhyme something with telephone, which was the phrase “dog and bone.” That’s a bit wordy, so ⅔ of it were dropped. Likewise, feet became plates, through plates of meat and stairs became apples through apples and pairs. There’s actually an ATM somewhere in the east end where one of the language options is Cockney rhyming slang. Also incorporated into Polari, by way of the theater, was the “broken Italian” used by street puppeteers who put on Punch and Judy shows. Examples of “Punch Talk” recorded in the 1850s include munjare (food), bivare (drink), and lente (bed). Even the name Polari is an Anglicization of an Italian word: parlare, “speak.” The lexical mishmash that was Parlyaree was used on the streets in England, as well as fairgrounds, circuses, fish markets, and the British Merchant Navy.
Polari isn’t easy to research. Language is fluid and ever-changing to begin with, a system of slang used for protection and rarely written down, even more so. There’s no definitive glossary and there is a wide variety of spellings. Even the name itself is spelled in a dozen different ways. So take anything you read or hear about it with a grain of salt, including this podcast. To complicate things further, some say there were actually two separate mutations of Polari within London: the East End version, which involved more Cockney rhyming slang, and a simplified West End version. Although there was a lot of overlap between the two, it’s been said that folks in the East End interacted with dock workers and sailors, who added words from foreign languages, and the West End version relied more heavily on theater slang.
In addition to being useful for discussing intimate business, Polari could also be used to determine if someone else is gay. You could drop a few words into a conversation to see if they picked up what you’d put down, and if not, no harm done. As such, the Polari glossary evolved to include a large number of racy terms, so that people could talk about hooking up without blowing their cover. Trade is a gay sex partner. A kerterver cartzo is a sexually transmitted infection. TBH stands for “to be had,” which described that a person was sexually available, what we call today DTF. In Polari, an omi is a man, and a woman is a dona or a palone. An omi-palone, therefore, is an effeminate man, or sometimes just a gay one. If you flip it around, a palone-omi is a lesbian.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Polari started to become more widely known, thanks in large part to the BBC radio comedy program Round the Horne, which you might have heard about in episode 42, Panto to Python. The characters Julian and Sandy peppered their scripts with Polari. Round the Horne was unusual in that it was a program on a mainstream station with two main characters who were more or less out of the closet, in a time and place when it was illegal to be gay. After several years on the air, many of Julian and Sandy’s terms made their way into everyday speech in the UK, such as vada (to see or look) and bona (good). One term in particular, naff, meaning bad, has proved to have real staying power. Round the Horne blew the secret by taking the language mainstream at the same time homosexuality was decriminalized, quickly negating and deflating the use of Polari. In his book, Baker writes that “many gay men under the age of thirty have never heard of it.”
Arguably the best known Polarism is drag, referring to women’s clothing when worn by men, possibly stemming from one of various Romany words for skirt. Where there’s drag, someone is going to zhoosh something up; that’s Polari as well. An effeminate gay man is a bit camp and he may mince as he walks. A masculine man, or anything for that matter, is butch. Does he have a nice bod? That’s Polari too.
To teach you a bit more Polari to liven up your daily speech, I’m joined today be actual friend of the show, They are part of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Atlanta chapter, a charity, protest, and street performance group that uses religious-themed drag to call attention to sexual intolerance and issues of gender and morality.
How bona to varda your dolly old eek!
How good to see your dear old face!
Vada the dolly dish, shame about his bijou lallies
Look at the attractive man, shame about his short legs
Can I troll round your lally?
Can I have a look around your house?
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. I’ll leave you with an anecdote of one attempt to reinvigorate Polari.
Bonus fact: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38863545
such as: “And the rib, which the Duchess Gloria had lelled from homie, made she a palone, and brought her unto the homie.” Translation: “And the rib which God had taken from man was made into a woman and brought to the man.”