Today is English Language Day as designated by the UN. The UN celebrates on different days for each of its 6 official languages, and there are many other “language days” promoted by various countries for languages that are not part of the UN official corpus. Today was chosen because it is St George’s day – patron of England – and is purportedly Shakespeare’s birthday. There is actually no record of Shakespeare’s birth. This date is conjectured to be his birthday because he was baptized on April 26 – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/william-shakespeare/ – and counting back three days to his birthday is a reasonable (but by no means certain) conjecture. It is known that he died on this date, possibly making him one of the noble few who died on their birthdays.
English is classified by historical linguists as a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England, but the issue is considerably more complex than that because the Old English that was first spoken in what is now England (Angle-land), by Angle and Saxon invaders, is not intelligible to Modern English speakers. It has gone through several significant shifts in vocabulary and syntax that make me want to argue that it is a creole of Old Frisian and Old Norman (maybe with Old Norse thrown in for good measure), rather than a simple descendant of Germanic languages.
English has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years and continues to evolve. The earliest forms of English are actually a set of dialects that we do not have very many written examples of to be fully sure what was spoken in England in the 5th century when invaders from the north German plains moved into southern England. This collection of dialects used to be called Anglo-Saxon, reflecting its complex history, but is now usually called Old English. Middle English began in the late 11th century with the Norman conquest of England: a period in which the language was heavily influenced by Norman French. Early Modern English began in the late 15th century with the introduction of the printing press to London and the printing of the King James Bible, and was the period of the Great Vowel Shift, when pronunciation shifted dramatically (both vowels and consonants), and spelling and pronunciation parted ways.
Because of the worldwide influence of the British Empire, modern English spread around the world starting in the 17th century. English has become the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions as well as professional contexts such as science, navigation and law. English is the third most spoken native language in the world, after Standard Chinese and Spanish. It is the most widely learned second language and is either the official language or one of the official languages in almost 60 sovereign states.
Modern English grammar is the result of a gradual change from a typical Indo-European dependent marking pattern (e.g. gender agreement) with a rich inflectional morphology and relatively free word order, to a mostly analytic pattern (i.e. using auxiliary, “helper” words) with little inflection, a fairly fixed SVO (Subject Verb Object) word order and a complex syntax. Modern English relies mostly on auxiliary verbs and word order for the expression of complex tenses, aspect, and mood, as well as for passive constructions, interrogatives and some negation. Despite noticeable variation among the accents and dialects of English used in different countries and regions – in terms of phonetics and phonology, and sometimes also vocabulary, grammar and spelling – English-speakers from around the world are able to communicate with one another fairly easily, increasingly so with the widespread availability of English language programs on public media.
Having an English Language Day does strike me as a bit like having a Straight White Men’s day, as does the attempt recently to create a celebration of St George’s Day in England. If you hold all the power it is not only pointless, but offensive, to celebrate how wonderful you are. The UN is being even handed about things by celebrating each of its official languages on separate days. That’s all right, I guess. English does not need a special day given its immense power in the world today. I have taught English in one form or another – writing, public speaking, etc. – all of my professional life, and have taught English as a foreign language (ESL or EFL) for a number of years. Teaching the language to non-native speakers is incredibly instructive. Having to think about the way you construct a sentence can be eye opening. Recently I was given to wonder why we use the future perfect to express a certainty about the past. For example, I can enter a new class and say, “You will have learned such-and-such last year,” meaning “I am confident that you know such-and-such.” We can use both the present simple (e.g. “I go”) and the present continuous (e.g. “I am going”) for past, present, or future. Try explaining the nuances to a non-native speaker.
Coming to grips with the “rules” that govern the order of adjectives, phrasal verbs, tenses, prepositions, and so forth in English, to be able to teach them, is a severe challenge. I have evolved a system via my teaching that might land up as a text book one day, but it is hardly a priority. The simple fact is that these so-called rules are mutable, and change from culture to culture. The big non-issue for me is British versus American English. Some Brits get really adamant about British English being the more correct of the two, which is utter nonsense. I once had a long, tedious, and fruitless discussion with an English pedant who wanted to argue that the British English “Wednesday to Saturday” made more sense than the American English “Wednesday through Saturday.” What a waste of time. Either way, you can get your point across. If anything, the American English is more logical because you are going through Saturday, not up to it. There is a notable difference between going to a door and going through it. But logic is not really the issue. The “logic” of English prepositions is not logical. You can tease out some generalities, but that’s it.
Old English recipes for everyday food do not exist but we have quite a few recipes for medicines such as this c. 9th century one from Leechbook III contained in the MS commonly called Bald’s Leechbook held in the British Library:
Gif mon biþ on wæterælfadle,
þonne beoþ him þa handnæglas wonne and þa
eagon tearige and wile locian niþer.
Do him þis to læcedome:
eoforþrote, cassuc, fone nioþoweard, eowberge, elehtre, eolone,
merscmealwan crop, fenminte, dile, lilie, attorlaþe, polleie, marubie,
docce, ellen, felterre, wermod, streawbergean leaf, consolde.
Ofgeat mid ealaþ, do hæligwæter to, sing þis gealdor ofer þriwa:
Ic binne awrat betest beadowræda,
swa benne ne burnon, ne burston,
ne fundian, ne feologan, ne hoppettan,
ne wund waxsian,
ne dolh diopian;
ac him self healde halewæge,
ne ace þe þon ma þe eorþan on eare ace.
Sing þis manegum siþum:
Eorþe þe onbere eallum hire mihtum and mægenum.
In modern English (roughly):
If a person has the water elf disease,
then his fingernails will be dark and the
eyes teary and he will look downward.
Prepare him this for a medicine:
carline thistle, cassock, the lower part of an iris, yew berry, lupine, elecampane,
marshmallow tops, fen mint, dill, lily, betony, pennyroyal, horehound,
dock, elder, centaury, wormwood, strawberry leaves, comfrey.
Soak with ale, add holy water to it, and sing this charm three times:
I within wrote the best war-bandages,
so the wounds not boil, nor burst,
nor hasten, nor cleave, nor throb,
nor the wound grow,
nor the gash deepen;
but for him I hold a health-cup,
it will not pain you any more than earth hurts the earth.
Sing this many times:
Earth reduce you with all Her might and power.
Heaven alone knows what water elf disease is. I have seen it claimed to be chicken pox or measles, but why this identification was made defeats me. The symptoms here are darkened fingernails and watery eyes. More interesting is the list of herbs used to make the concoction, which sounds like something Macbeth’s witches would dream up. Probably as useful too. No doubt modern Wiccans bottle it and sell it. Most of the herbs are identifiable and quite useful in cooking, and suggests to me that the common diet in England in the 9th century was richer than we give them credit for. Their breads and porridges may have been pretty plain, and probably the average peasant was not a foodie. But there must have been the odd baker or two who added some flavorings to the daily bread, or something different once in a while to the porridge. Of course, there are plenty of cultures in the world today where a daily porridge of grains is made without extras, even when wild herbs are available. My mother never added anything to our porridge in all the years I was growing up, but that’s because she was a thoroughly unimaginative cook.
English Language Day gives you full license to cook anything in English, although for my money I’d cook something that is decidedly English – if you can find such a thing. Recipes are like languages: their influences come from all over the place. However, the issue is not so much where recipes/languages came from, but, rather, what they have become. English might have once been a creole of German, Danish, and French, but it is now its own thing. Elizabeth David likes to claim that English Christmas pudding is originally French, and so it may be that some assemblage of the basic ingredients may once have been boiled together in France. But the dish as it is made now is English through and through. Japanese tempura is not a version of fish and chips, even though the Japanese got the idea of frying fish in batter from Europeans.
So . . . a thoroughly English dish to celebrate today? I’ve given a ton of recipes already, both regional and general, in my quest to counter all the stupid opinions generated by ignorant travelers. Most recently, a colleague of mine from Myanmar took an extensive trip to England and mixed up his occasional diet of fish and chips with Thai food because he could not find anything more “interesting.” That’s because he did not talk to me before he went, and his English hosts were not all that bright. Asking locals about good food is never a sure-fire way to get it – even in countries where the cuisine is legendary.
I’m going to go with faggots because they were a staple of school lunches when I was a boy, though they were not very good in those days. The name is also a word with different meanings in British and American English. They were cheap meatballs in gravy back then, which is not far off how they started. But they can be good if made well. They were originally a traditional cheap food of country people in western England, particularly west Wiltshire and the west Midlands. They were usually made from pig’s heart, liver and fatty belly meat or bacon minced together, with herbs added for flavoring, and sometimes bread crumbs as a filler and binder, then wrapped in pig’s caul and cooked. In a way, therefore, they were an informal sausage. This recipe is reasonably similar to 19th century ones.
4 oz./110 gm fatty pork shoulder, minced
4 oz./110 gm pig’s liver, minced
8 oz./250 gm pig’s heart, minced
4 oz./110 gm bacon scraps
4 oz./110 gm breadcrumbs
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
½ tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground allspice
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 sage leaves, finely chopped
salt and pepper
caul fat (or streaky bacon)
Preheat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C.
Place the minced meats, breadcrumbs, onion, herbs, spices in a large mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Using your hands, moistened under running cold water, divide the minced meat mixture into 8 evenly sized portions and roll them into balls.
Wrap each ball in caul (or streaky bacon) making sure the caul overlaps and is secure. Place the faggots on a baking sheet and bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Serve immediately with onion gravy and mashed potatoes (maybe also mushy peas) rather like bangers and mash.