A linguistic digression


Adventure English


Cookery books are not the only books I read.

In fact, long before cooking became a job and more than a passionate hobby, I was (and still am I want to believe) a linguist.

I recently borrowed a little jewel from my local library. It tells the history of the English language from the fifth century when the Germanic tribes invaded the Islands to the present. It is by all accounts, fascinating and I am deeply engrossed in its pages.

Destined for the general public, it is an easy read. It ‘explains’ (if that’s the word to use) the irregularities of the English spelling which so baffled me as a child*.

I find it fascinating that, as the author himself explains, even though English had to cope with many invasions by foreign languages to the point of being almost wiped out some of the times, it was remarkable how resilient it proved to be and survive by assimilating many words (sometimes hundreds) from the current invading language whichever that was.

Part of the Normanisation of England under William II in the 9th century meant that the French brought with them not only habits and culture but also their language. So, after King Harold, there would be no English-speaking king to take his oath in English for another three hundred years.

Being a linguist I couldn’t resist this paragraph: 

      While the English-speaking peasants lived in small, often one-roomed mud and wattle cottages, or huts, their French-speaking masters lived in high stone castles. Many aspects of our modern vocabulary reflect the distinction between them.

      English speakers tended the living cattle, for instance, which we still call by the Old English words ‘ox’ or, more usually today, ‘cow’. French speakers ate prepared meat which came to the table, which we call by the French word ‘beef’. In the same way, the English ‘sheep’ became the French ‘mutton’, ‘calf’ became ‘veal’ ‘deer’ became ‘venison’, ‘pig’ ‘pork’, English animal, French meat in every case.

      The English laboured, the French feasted.


from: The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg

*I used to go to private language lessons since I was eight. Now, I have a personality which demands to know the reason for everything. As such, I simply could not understand why I had to write the pronoun ‘I’ in capital letters even if it was in the middle of the sentence, or I would pronounce ‘tomato’ one way and ‘potato’ in another way even though the spelling at the end was the same. So, to cut a long story short, one day Nora, my wonderful teacher, had to sit me down after the lesson and explain to me that I had to take it as it came, because sometimes (most times, in fact) English phonetics just didn’t make any sense. 

It is different in cooking, where everything is a lot more logical, it’s just common sense. I would drive my French chef tutor mad with all the questions: Why is this cooked in a copper pan and not a regular one? Why is this fried and not boiled, etc? Why do you use this type of flour and not other? I would say 99.9% of the cases had a logical explanation (for the remaining 0.01% see my honey and banana bread which I made last year).


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