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Birth of a Language 



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Episode cast overview:
Himself - Presenter
Michael Cronin ...
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Release Date:

6 November 2003 (UK)  »

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14 December 2014 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

This has to be one of the better documentaries on the English language. There are several, but this is the most detailed and viewer-friendly.

My own familiarity with historical linguistics is on the casual side. I knew -- and if I knew, I have to assume that an awful lot of people also know -- that the language we now call English was brought to the land we now call England by the Germanic-speaking tribes of the continent, who promptly wiped out the native Celts around 600 AD.

I also knew that the Roman occupation had left some droppings of Latin. I knew that around 900 AD, roughly, because the subject is only an acquaintance, the Vikings invaded Northeastern England and introduced words like "skirt" and "skiff." And finally I knew that William the Conqueror, who spoke French, invaded England and defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings. I didn't know that Harold's predecessor had designated William as his successor and that Harold had pulled a double cross by having himself crowned.

In any case, man, did the Norman French take over. They did a survey of the land, down to the number of pigs and horses, missing nothing, and then divvied it up among themselves. The result was that England was owned by about 190 Frenchmen, and only a handful of these ruled the place.

French was spoken all over and English was suppressed. Well, it didn't get itself extinguished but it was kicked out of the castle and into the barnyard. So what was swine (English) outside became pork (French) by the time it reached the table. Likewise, a cow became beef; a calf became veal; a hen became a pullet; and so on.

I'd never really gotten past Mario Pei and some subsidiary readings. But I was always interested in the subject of linguistics in a general way and incorporated regional dialects of the American South into my own work. But much of this is new to me, and probably will be to most viewers.

The information doesn't require a professional background and is delivered by a genial, unprepossessing host. You'll also get to travel around. You'll see the black bones of monasteries burned by the Viking raiders and visit probably the oldest Christian chapel in the country.

And you'll learn a lot about the flotsam left behind by earlier languages. Adding "son" to the end of one's last name (eg., "Robinson") was a habit adopted from the Norsemen. It's common in the northeast of England, where it should be, but what the hell it's doing in Wales I don't know. I now live in Deming, New Mexico. Named after the daughter of some railroad tycoon. Now I know that "Deming" means the people who lived on the estate of a French magistrate. "Ing" is "people of."

I didn't know that! Does that make the people of modern Deming "Deminging"?

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