Tuesday May 1, 2012
By FADZILAH AMIN
Where do you think the word ‘amuck’ came from? English has borrowed many words from other languages, including Malay.
WHEN British politicians speak about “Britishness” in connection with granting citizenship, I wonder if the term includes the love of “a nice cup of tea” and “fish and chips”.
These are the items of food and drink foreigners associate most with the British. It is curious, therefore, that the word “tea” came from the Hokkien word for it while the word “potato” (for the tuber that chips are made of) came from the Spanish “patata”.
Words are adopted by one language from another when cultures come into contact through trade, conquest, colonisation, even wars, and also through religious conversion, reading and scholarship.
English began as Anglo-Saxon (Old English), the language used by the Angles and Saxons, tribes from Germany, who invaded and settled in the south and east of Britain from about 550AD to the Norman Conquest in 1066.
The Normans, in turn, introduced French words into the language, and the mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French became known as Middle English. By the time of the Renaissance in the 16th and 17th centuries, the language had evolved to become Modern English.
A lot of words from Latin (some originally from Greek) entered the language through the revival of interest in classical learning. This age also saw a great increase in sea voyages undertaken to “discover” new lands and trade in commodities that eventually led to colonisation of far-flung parts of the globe by the British, as well as a few other European powers.
More words came into the English language as a result of these activities. Thus, it is that contemporary English has roughly the following percentages of words from the different sources: Anglo-Saxon (25%), French (30%), Latin (30%) and other languages (15%).
To come back to the word “tea”, it came with the import of the dried tea leaves from China into Britain in the 1650s by the Dutch East India Company. The British really took to it as a beverage, and by 1712, there was recorded evidence of it being regularly imbibed at the court of Queen Anne, in the following lines from Alexander Pope’s poem, Rape of the Lock:
“Here thou, great Anna! Whom three realms obey, / Does sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.”
Because “tea” there rhymes with the word “obey”, it is believed that the word was originally pronounced “tay” in England, like the way it is pronounced in Hokkien.
The Mandarin word for tea is seen in the informal term “char” in England – “a cuppa char” being often recommended when you are tired or troubled.
Potatoes, on the other hand, which originated in “the Pacific slopes of South America” (OED), was introduced to Europe in the late 16th century after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in that region.
However, it was only in the 19th century that potatoes became an important item of food in England. It is believed that the first fish and chip shops were opened in 1860 in London and 1863 in Lancashire.
“Pyjamas” is a case of a word, as well as a garment, being adopted by the British from India, a country they colonised for a couple of centuries. The word is of Urdu and Persian origin and pronounced like “pay-jamah” in the original languages.
The first recorded use of the word in English came from 1800, in a “Memorandum relative to Tippoo Sultaun’s wardrobe” (OED). If you read an English novel from before that date (e.g. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, 1749), you’ll find accounts of men wearing nightgowns and not pyjamas when they sleep.
Having looked at some English words with rather exotic origins, what are some of the Anglo-Saxon words that have survived in modern English despite the lure of foreign words? Words for numbers up to the thousands are from Anglo-Saxon, as are words for immediate members of the family, like “mother”, “father”, “son” and “daughter”. These survive with slightly changed but recognisable pronunciations.
But the words “million”, “billion” and “trillion” all came from French. Likewise the words for relatives that are less close, like “nephew”, “niece”, “uncle”, “aunt” and “cousin” are all from French or Old French. Can we gather, then, that the Anglo-Saxons weren’t as good at maths as the Normans, and only recognised the nuclear family? That would be a rash speculation!
Other French additions to English are the words for abstractions like justice, liberty, joy, as well as words for actions like encounter, commence, purchase, and words for ordinary things like chair, curtain, fruit, beef and pork. Most of these came into the language in the few centuries after the Norman Conquest.
The Renaissance brought with it thousands of words, mainly from Latin, and also from Greek through Latin.
Among the largest contributors to the English language were two great writers of that period, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Milton (1608 - 1674). They not only contributed neologisms or new words, but also used existing ones in new ways.
Among those attributed to Shakespeare are “obscene”, from Latin, used in 1593 in his play Richard II, “castigate” (1607 in Timon of Athens), “lustrous”, an adjective from the noun “lustre” (of French origin and meaning “shine” or “gloss”), and also “lacklustre”, which is a combination of “lack” and “lustre” and means “wanting in lustre or brightness” (OED).
Among those contributed by Milton, the most famous must be “Pandemonium” (in his long poem Paradise Lost), which means the abode of all demons and the capital of Hell (OED).
In this word, Milton combines the Greek “pan” (all), the Latin “demon” (evil spirit) and the suffix “–ium” which indicates a place (like stadium and gymnasium).
The word “pandemonium” survives to this day in its metaphorical meaning of “wild lawless confusion or uproar” (OED). Other Miltonic contributions include “sensuous” (from Latin and distinguished from “sensual”), “debauchery” from French, “complacency” from Latin, and so on.
I can’t end this article without some reference to words adopted from this country. The most famous is “amok” or “amuck” from the Malay verb “mengamok”. “To run amok” means “to run viciously, mad, frenzied for blood” (OED).
There is even a noun in English, for a person who runs amok, i.e. “an amok” which the OED defines as “a frenzied Malay”.
However, after hearing about so many acts of frenzied mass killing in the United States and elsewhere, I am convinced that this is not just a Malay phenomenon.