Tuesday 16 January 2018

Kevin Myers: We must say au revoir to French imposters

When Ryan Tubridy, in the company of four Irish-American heroes from 9/11, last weekend spoke about "an ommahj", did they have the least idea that he meant actually "homage"? That's the word they would have used, and it's the word Shakespeare would have used, and just about everybody has used since the Norman-French were kicking the tripe out of the poor old Anglo-Saxons, and making them pay homage to the invader.

In a way, that's where the damage was done: three centuries of linguistic oppression of the English-speaking natives by their Norman overlords gave the English language a chronic linguistic inferiority complex. Not merely was French the language of state, law, church and royalty, but also of trade: hence the grocer, the butcher, the mason. Insecurity about its intellectual seriousness remains in the DNA of English, which is perhaps why English is so reluctant to make adjectives from words of Anglo-Saxon roots. The adjective corresponding to the Anglo-Saxon "law" is the French "legal"; to "king", "royal": to "tree", "arboreal".

English is apparently unable to develop itself internally in the way the French does, with words like "jealousy" out of "zeal" and "barrage" out of the French for "bar, and "sabotage" out of "sabot", a clog. So the English language usually imports and then naturalises these words: thus we do not pronounce jealous "szahloo", which is the approximate French pronunciation of their word "jaloux". Nor do we say "bahrahhj, nor "sabotahhhj".

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