Saturday, 16 November 2013

What History Isn't

I live in Oxford, which has plenty of old buildings.  Not that old, actually - the University is reliably dated to 1241, but there aren't very many buildings of that age in the city these days.  I think there's a stained glass window in Christ Church that dates from the fourteenth century, and the old city wall you can see in New College is probably of similar age, but most of the famous buildings are sixteenth century and later, with their fancy fan-vaulting.  Still, it's a pretty place.

What annoys me about it, though, is that people seem to think that Oxford has 'a lot of history' because it has a lot of old buildings.  They're not usually referring to the fact that the lay-out of the city basically dates to the time of Alfred or anything similar; what they really mean is that Oxford looks sort of old, and that in looking impressively old, it fits their idea of what history is.  The same idea says that England, France, and China have 'a lot of history' because they have lots of old buildings, while America has only a few hundred years of history because most American buildings are under four hundred years old.  The equation of old things = history is rather common, as is the idea that you're a history buff if you like castles and Anne Boleyn, and something else entirely if you like reconstructed proto-Indo-European and the Acheulean industry.

Clearly this isn't the right way to approach human history.  Plenty of incredibly important human events took place in the US and other parts of the non-literate world prior to European colonisation.  Population movements over thousands of years spread the Athabaskan languages between Alaska and New Mexico, the Algonquian languages between Delaware and Washington, and the Uto-Aztecan languages between Utah and El Salvador.  Towns and large villages were built and thrived on agricultural surpluses; cities, even, rose and fell; babies were born, wars were fought, and poetry was recited.  Millions of people lived out their lives in these places, and their experiences were largely dictated by the histories of their peoples.  They may not have built in Cotswold stone, but I don't think that means that America has 'less history' than other places, whatever that might even mean.  Without the history of pre-Columbian America, the world today would be an incredibly different place.  Its history is written in the words we use and the food we eat and other intangible things, and I don't think you get to call yourself a history buff if you dismiss that as something other than history.
Monk's Mound, Cahokia.  Older and in many ways more imposing than an Oxford college.  It may not have gargoyles, but it's still a bona fide part of human history (and it's a little embarrassing to have to point that out).  h/t Wiki, User: Skubasteve834

History isn't to be found in quaint frocks and old buildings - not wholly, at least.  It's to be found in every word we use, every piece of food we shove into our faces, and every human-influenced environment we happen to live in, whether in Manaus, Detroit, or Oxford.  Look at the alphabet you use: it began life in Egypt, and by way of innumerable intermediaries and near-imperceptible influences, like the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, the proto-Sinaitic abjad, the Phoenician abjad, the Cumaean Greek alphabet, the Etruscan and Latin alphabets, Carolingian scribal schools, and typeface-designers' workshops, it has ended up as it is today - used to write hundreds of languages found on every continent in hundreds of fonts.  Look at the food you eat: go to Nando's and see chicken, a domesticated bird of Indian origin, side-by-side with butter-mashed sweet potato, a combination of Eurasian dairy technology and an Amazonian tuber.  That's history, in your throat and on your plate.

I'm not saying that beautiful old buildings aren't worth something.  It's just that the equating of history with obviously old things doesn't really make sense, and believing that places or groups of people don't 'have history' unless they've constructed magnificent stone buildings or written lasting chronicles is (often racist) madness.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Language: 'Genetic' Relatedness

When two languages have a common ancestor, we say that they are 'genetically' related.  This has nothing to do with genetics in the biological sense, and it doesn't imply that speakers of genetically related languages are themselves genetically related.  But languages share ancestors like organisms share ancestors, and so genetic relatedness is the metaphor historical linguists use.

Unlike with organisms, genetic relatedness rarely tells us everything we need to know about a language.  If you said that English is a West Germanic language or an Indo-European language, you'd be saying things that are true, but that are just not the whole picture.

English has plenty of non-Indo-European-derived words, including 'person' from Etruscan φersu and 'shark' from Yucatec Mayan xoc (which entered English around 1585).  The Germanic languages themselves appear to show the presence of a non-Indo-European substrate language - that is to say, a non-Indo-European language that crossed with Indo-European at some point in European prehistory, affecting the structure and phonology of proto-Germanic.  While proto-Germanic is clearly an Indo-European language, it shows the presence of some obviously non-Indo-European languages.

English's structures are not wholly West Germanic, either - the idea of forming a question with the verb 'to do' as an auxiliary, e.g., 'do you like linguistics?', apparently derives from a Brythonic precedent.  North Germanic languages contributed so much to English after the Norse invasions/migrations that even the verb 'to be' is partly Norse; 'he is' is entirely Anglo-Saxon, while 'they are' is entirely Norse.  Words like 'egg', 'sky', and 'bag' have origins in Old Norse as well.

It's not that English isn't a West Germanic language, but rather that that fact is not the whole picture, and in order to account for the English spoken today, or at any period, we have to look at all the parts.  And as ever with human language and culture, those parts come from all over the world, and have origins you may not initially suspect.