John Murray £16.99

The Secret Life of Words: How English became English, By Henry Hitchings

The history of the English language is the history of our place in the world

Henry Hitchings's book is aptly titled. Words do have a secret life, or rather a secret past. George Steiner, quoted here, put it well: "When using a word we wake into resonance ... its entire previous history." In the case of English, that's a lot of history to explore: even by the most conservative estimate there are 700,000 words in our current lexicon.

English also became English through fundamental changes in grammar and pronunciation, but Hitchings is only concerned with vocabulary. That could have resulted in a book that was just an extended footnote to the OED's compressed etymologies, and it is hard to imagine this book being written without the digital version of the great dictionary which makes it possible, for instance, to find instantly all of the English words taken from Basque (since you ask, "anchovy" and "basque"). But etymology is just Hitchings's starting point; he shows us that the history of our vocabulary is the history of our place in the world

The book has a broad chronological sweep, from pre-Roman Britain to the latest street slang, but individual chapters tend to work through particular cultural encounters or themes, sometimes with extended digressions. A chapter called "Powwow" is a masterly focused account of our early exploration of America and our encounters with its languages. A chapter called "Connoisseur" manages to encompass not only the 18th century's extensive borrowings from French, but also the era's vogue for grammar books and dictionaries, the rise of scientific writing, the use of Italian terms in music, and the lexicon of travel and exploration, including an account of our first confrontations with Australian aboriginal languages.

We talk about "borrowing" words. It's a shorthand way of describing a complex process. Hitchings uses it, just as he talks about writers "coining" words when he really means that their earliest printed appearance so far unearthed is in their works. But he also gives an intelligent account of what really happens when two languages come into contact. There is an exchange of terms; but the breadth and depth of that exchange is dependent upon the strength of the relationship. And it is not just about us learning their language: they need to learn ours, bringing their words – their nouns, principally – with them.

That helps explain the huge differences in the extent to which borrowing took place. We have taken more words from French than anywhere else, because theirs is a culture with which we have been intimately engaged for 1,000 years. But we also took a surprising amount from native American languages, because we settled there and – at the beginning – enjoyed fruitful relationships with them. In contrast, we took next to nothing from aboriginal Australian languages.

Is English inherently a "promiscuous" language, especially willing to take part in these exchanges? Hitchings thinks not. The extent of its borrowings has more to do with the political realities of England's (and later Britain's) involvement with the world. On the other hand, the shift away from an Old English grammar based upon inflectional word-endings to one based on word order has made it easy for words to be accommodated; most new words come from adaptations of existing terms, rather than borrowing.

One of the themes of the book is the recurring tension between those who want the language to be pure, simple and Germanic and those who relish promiscuity, complexity, and the new. Hitchings points out that words only come into the language because there is a need for them, and finds a few harsh – and funny – words for those purists who have, over the centuries, fought battles over individual words. At the same time, he concedes that "there are compelling reasons for ... wanting a large degree of stability in our language".

The only serious argument I have is with Hitchings' conventional account of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of "Celtic" south and east Britain. Only a tiny clutch of nouns and a few more placenames survived, suggesting a kind of linguistic Year Zero. But by his own account, no such cleansing has taken place elsewhere in the world, even where there were actual genocides. I have been persuaded by the alternative explanation, put forward in Stephen Oppenheimer's The Origins of the British, that the pre- and post-Roman inhabitants of England spoke a Germanic language that was seamlessly incorporated into Old English.

But Hitchings is far more informed on these matters than I am. His bibliography runs to 27 pages, and the book is admirably footnoted and indexed. The scholarship, though, is unobtrusive. Even in the denser sections, this clever, persuasive, delightful book is studded with entertaining observations, whether he's telling us that "poppycock" comes from the Dutch for "doll's shit", or that the Australian language Guugu Yimidhirr has a special vocabulary reserved for talking to one's brother-in-law.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project