Black Sheep English

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English is so different to the other Germanic languages. This difference is really brought home for us when we compare Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in various Germanic languages.

English:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

German:
Alle Menschen sind frei und gleich an Würde und Rechten geboren. Sie sind mit Vernunft und Gewissen begabt und sollen einander im Geist der Brüderlichkeit begegnen.

Dutch:
Alle mensen worden vrij en gelijk in waardigheid en rechten geboren. Zij zijn begiftigd met verstand en geweten, en behoren zich jegens elkander in een geest van broederschap te gedragen.

Afrikaans:
Alle menslike wesens word vry, met gelyke waardigheid en regte, gebore. Hulle het rede en gewete en behoort in die gees van broederskap teenoor mekaar op te tree.

Swedish:
Alla människor äro födda fria och lika i värde och rättigheter. De äro utrustade med förnuft och samvete och böra handla gentemot varandra i en anda av broderskap.

Norwegian (Bokmål):
Alle mennesker er født frie og med samme menneskeverd og menneskerettigheter. De er utstyrt med fornuft og samvittighet og bør handle mot hverandre i brorskapets ånd.

Norwegian (Nynorsk):
Alle menneske er fødde til fridom og med same menneskeverd og menneskerettar. Dei har fått fornuft og samvit og skal leve med kvarandre som brør.

Danish:
Alle mennesker er født frie og lige i værdighed og rettigheder. De er udstyret med fornuft og samvittighed, og de bør handle mod hverandre i en broderskabets ånd.

Frisian:
Alle minsken wurde frij en gelyk yn weardigens en rjochten berne. Hja hawwe ferstân en gewisse meikrigen en hearre har foar inoar oer yn in geast fan bruorskip te hâlden en te dragen.

Icelandic:
Hver maður er borinn frjáls og jafn öðrum að virðingu og réttindum. Menn eru gæddir vitsmunum og samvizku, og ber þeim að breyta bróðurlega hverjum við annan.

Faroese:
Øll menniskju eru fødd fræls og jøvn til virðingar og mannarættindi. Tey hava skil og samvitsku og eiga at fara hvørt um annað í bróðuranda.

[Translations from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Pages/SearchByLang.aspx]

Firstly, I’m sorry if I left your favourite Germanic language off! The above list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, merely representative.

Straightaway, you should notice a lot of variety in the Germanic languages. They aren’t all just like German at all. But despite this variety, a quick glance shows just how far removed English is. Truly, English is the black sheep of the Germanic family!

FUN TASK 1

With the following English-Swedish key, see for yourself what these words come out as in the various Germanic languages:

  • human beings : människor
  • equal : lika
  • dignity :  värde
  • endowed : utrustade
  • reason : förnuft
  • conscience : samvete
  • act : handla
  • spirit : anda

Found those words in all the other Germanic languages yet?

FUN TASK 2

Think about what the English cognates to these Swedish words could be, e.g., lika is ‘like’. Then consider whether these cognates mean the same thing as the English word being translated. So, ‘like’ is the brother-word to lika, but does ‘like’ actually mean ‘equal’? And if not, how not? Do this for all the above words.

FUN TASK 3

Compare the English version to the Spanish and French versions paying particular attention to the eight words we highlighted above.

English:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Spanish:
Todos los seres humanos nacen libres e iguales en dignidad y derechos y, dotados como están de razón y conciencia, deben comportarse fraternalmente los unos con los otros.

French:
Tous les êtres humains naissent libres et égaux en dignité et en droits. Ils sont doués de raison et de conscience et doivent agir les uns envers les autres dans un esprit de fraternité.

And English is a Germanic language…? But of course, the heavy Latinate influence on English won’t surprise most readers of this blog. None-the-less, this kind of side-by-side comparison is illuminating, to say the least.

SO IT’S ALL LATIN’S FAULT?

Most of my fellow Saxonists — folk who still salute Harold Godwinson as their one true king — will claim this is all William the Conqueror’s fault. If only he hadn’t subjugated this nation, English would be more like Swedish and German. Why, if only he’d stayed in France where he belonged, we’d be using stout Germanic words like ogle, swinehound, and swart — just like any Germanic language worth its salt, such as Swedish: öga, svin, hund, and svart — instead of the pathetic borrowings we’ve been left with: eye, pig, dog, black.

Except eye, pigdog, and black are thoroughly English words. Their use has got nothing, direct or indirect, to do with William the Conqueror and the subsequent Frenchification of England (check the word-histories out here).

Y’see, English belongs to a different branch of the Germanic languages to all the others. The only other living language in this branch, Scots aside, is Frisian — a language more swamped by Dutch than even English has been by French. Furthemore, English being on an island, it has developed in a totally different direction to the other Germanic languages: “insular” does literally mean ‘of an island’ for a reason, you know.

So there we are. Even if it weren’t for the undeniable Latinate influence on English, English always was a bit different. It always was the black sheep.

featured image from http://www.parenthub.com.au/wp-content/uploads/612_black-sheep.jpg

© 2015 Bryan A. J. Parry

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2 Responses to Black Sheep English

  1. […] Nor forstå. Clearly, loan translating doesn’t always work; English always has been the black sheep of the Germanic language […]

  2. […] We still would have borrowed words, including from French, just as the other other Germanic languages have done. However, we would likely have borrowed far fewer. See Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for a good example. […]

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