The unclefts of firststuffs

A proper Viking maelstrom.

We all know that English is a magpie language, right? There’s not much of Celtic left in it, to be sure, give or take the odd dolmen or loch. There’s not even as much Viking as you might expect, give or take the odd maelstrom, midden, skirt and skill. And, of course (these are Vikings, stupid) slaughter.

But then of course there’s heaps of posh French. You can tell it’s posh because while the English were out in the fields tending the sheep and cows, the Norman overlords were inside their castle eating lamb and beef.

And then as the English started to venture abroad more, the language ventured forth too, stealing as it went. The language has loan words from pretty much everywhere, from the Spanish derived alligator, to the Hindi pyjamas, to the Arab algebra, and so on. The language didn’t just plunder from the living, it robbed graves as well, so heaps of words were invented from the posh Latin (aberration, juvenile, democratic, sophisticated), the posher-than-posh Greek (physics, astronomy) or a kind of super-posh car-crash of the two (metalinguistics, anyone?)

There’s no exact way to measure where we get our words from, but one intelligent examination of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary reckons that English gets its words in roughly equal quarters from Germanic languages (including, of course, Anglo-Saxon), French, direct from the Latin. Greek is the largest single component of the ‘everything else’ category, though – suprisingly to me at least – ‘words derived from proper nouns’ is a notably large sub-category.

But this way of putting languages together is odd. It’s particularly odd, perhaps, because the Germanic languages – notably German – do pretty much the opposite: building up more complex words and thoughts from simpler composites. The German Fernsehapparat is literally the far-seeing-device, or as we say (via Greek) a television.

The German appetite for making words this way is actually startling, I think, to a mostly monoglot Brit. Nipples are Brustwarzen – breast-warts. The organ we delicately refer to as placenta is named for what it is in German as Mutterkuchen – mothercakes. Wow! And I bet you can guess where your Schamhaar (“shame-hair”) grows.

So what if English formed its language the ways its sister Germanic tongues do? And what if, say, we wanted to do advanced science in that new language? Poul Anderson wondered just that, and this is the beautiful result (more here):

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called *unclefts*. These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called *bulkbits*. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.

Oh joy! I’m going to write like that from now on. English-shminglish.  Andersonian is way more fun. (Or, of course, if you want some actual sensible advice on prose style you can get it here.)

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