Composition of Scientific Words: A Manual of Methods and a Lexicon of Materials for the Practice of Logotechnics

By Roland Wilbur Brown | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

HISTORY AND NATURE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

The prehistoric inhabitants of the British Isles probably left little of their language to English speech. Their relics, which excite our wonder and speculation, consist chiefly of stone, clay, and bronze implements, kitchen middens, burial mounds (cairns, barrows, tumuli), and megalithic monuments comprising isolated stones (monoliths, menhirs), simple tombs (dolmens), and stone circles (cromlechs) such as Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England, and the Ring of Brogar, near Stromness, in the Orkney Islands. These aborigines were either absorbed or destroyed by Celts or Gaels, the nucleus of the present Irish, Scotch, and Welsh stocks, who came from the Continent during the first millennium B.C., and, seizing the ports, spread out over the good agricultural lands. The Celts, besides practicing agriculture, are said to have brewed beer, mined tin, and introduced the use of iron. To the English vocabulary, through contact with their Roman and later contemporaries, they contributed bard, bin, crag, and many geographic names, such as Cornwall, Dover, Kent, London, Thames, York; avon, river, in Stratford-on-Avon, Avondale; bryn, hill, in Bryn Mawr; cumb, valley, in Duncombe; and dun, hill, town, in Dundee, Dumbarton, Doncaster. Our May Day and Halloween revelries are reminiscent of less respectable Celtic ceremonies. Likewise our custom of kissing under the mistletoe is said to date from those barbaric days when that plant was held sacred and druid priests "with voices sad and prophetic" offered up human sacrifices and chanted about the transmigration of the soul. One tribe of southern Celts was called Brythons or Britons, a name perpetuated in the words Britain, British, Brittany, Briton, and Breton.

In 55 B.C. Julius Caesar and his victorious legions, desirous of extending the sway of Roman power, disembarked on British shores but received scant welcome from the outraged Celts. Rome, however, after gaining a foothold, maintained this Latin-Celtic connection until early in the fifth century. The invasion resulted in the importation of many typical Roman customs, the institution of organized government, the appearance of the inevitable tax-collector, the construction of roads, stone walls, fortifications, and public buildings, and the introduction of such Latin words or roots as port (portus, harbor) in Portsmouth, Portsea, Portchester; coln (colonia, settlement) in Lincoln; wick or wich (vicus, village) in Warwick, Greenwich; cester or chester (castra, camp, fort) in Chester, Gloucester, Lancaster, Manchester, Winchester,--places that were former strategic military posts or protected habitations. These words now testify as eloquently to the Roman occupation of Britain as the crumbling walls across northern England from Newcastle on the Tyne to Solway Firth, or of Watling Street, an improvement of the old Roman road leading from London to Chester. The use of Latin, however, seems to have been confined to officialdom and townsfolk, whereas the tribes in the rural districts held somewhat aloof and continued to speak their own tongue.

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