Bone-houses in the Story of English

In the preface to his new book, The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal writes that the usual approach to telling the story of English is to offer a broad view that identifies general themes and trends (as in the same author’s Evolving English), while another method is to pick particular words and phrases and detail their idiosyncratic origins and characteristics.

The first approach, Crystal says, gives readers “a clear view of the wood” but “very few of the trees”; the second does the opposite. His aim in The Story of English in 100 Words is to unite these perspectives, so he chooses 100 words and uses them as a base from which to explore how the language emerged and developed over the last millennium and a half.

The list may appear random at first glance, but each word represents something of broader significance — a whole class of words or mode of change, for example, or a certain social or cultural idea — which allows Crystal to move from the specific to the general and thereby describe the history and character of the language in neatly self-contained 2- and 3-page nuggets.

It’s quite a short book, but I’ve had others on the go so I’ve only dipped into it so far. What I have read has been very entertaining and informative. While the book is aimed at general readers, it is likely to contain surprises even for those very familiar with the terrain: Crystal says he himself learnt something new while researching every chapter.

I learnt several new things while reading the chapter on bone-house, a “word painting” from the 10th century. Crystal says it was used by the Anglo-Saxons, who spelt it ban-hus (pronounced “bahn-hoos”). It referred not to an ossuary or building for the dead, but to a living human body. (The Danse Macabre of the Middle Ages shows a similar frankness about our common anatomy and mortality.)

Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

The picture created by bone-house or ban-hus, Crystal writes, was evidently an appealing one,

for the poets coined several words for the same idea. They also describe the body as a ‘bone-hall’ (bansele, pronounced ‘bahn-selluh’), a ‘bone-vessel’ (ban-fæt, ‘bahn-fat’), a ‘bone-dwelling’ (ban-cofa, ‘bahn-cohvuh’) and a ‘bone-enclosure’ (ban-loca, ‘bahn-lockuh’). The human mind, or spirit, was a ban-huses weard — ‘guardian, or ward, of the bone-house’.

Such vivid figures of speech appear throughout the poetry of the age — Beowulf is full of them — not just in English but in the early verse of other Germanic languages. Crystal continues:

These coinages are called kennings, a word adapted from the Old Icelandic language. Kenning is from the verb kenna, ‘to know’, and it captures the idea that these coinages have a meaning that is more insightful than can be expressed by a single word. Ken is still used as a verb in Scots English and in some northern dialects of England. And we still hear it as a noun in the phrase beyond our ken. . . .

Kennings don’t seem to have been much used outside of poetry, and they fell out of use after the Anglo-Saxon period. But the same poetic impulse lies behind many compound words. We hear it still when a scientist is described as an egghead, or a criminal as a lawbreaker or a boxer as a prize-fighter. But we don’t seem to take the same joy in creating vivid alternative descriptions as the Anglo-Saxons did.

This bone-house regrets that.

All 100 words are listed in the Telegraph at the end of a fascinating introduction to the book by Crystal himself, in which he writes that “words are more than just linguistic objects. They are windows into the world of those who use them.” In which case you can think of this book as a time machine with 100 portals.


Disclosure: I received an advance copy of The Story of English in 100 Words from Profile Books — not to review, but because I helped them source a particular image of Belinda Blurb. (You’ll find me listed in the illustration credits at the back.)

I almost forgot: On Google+ I posted a very brief excerpt of Crystal’s amusing first encounter with singular y’all, for all you all y’all who might be interested.

Edit: John E. McIntyre writes: “I knew I’d heard people use y’all as a singular, had even been addressed as such myself. But no, everyone said, y’all is always a plural, and it’s only damnyankees who get it wrong.” Lots more on this at Language Log.

[image source]

15 Responses to Bone-houses in the Story of English

  1. Sounds like an interesting read. Just listing the words, as the Telegraph doesn’t, doesn’t help… I looked at the list and thought, “well that’s an odd collection”

  2. johnwcowan says:

    Well, Crystal is a raconteur, and I believe he has “improved” some of his stories. In particular, I simply do not believe that he walked into a Texas store fifty years ago and was greeted with “Howdy, y’all!” Y’all can indeed be used to a single person, but only when the person can be plausibly seen as the representative of a group. So it is appropriate to ask the salesclerk “Have y’all got any eggs?”, because it’s a question about what the store has, not what the clerk has. But the clerk would not reply “What kind of eggs are y’all looking for?” unless he believed the customer to be shopping on behalf of a bakery or something.

    Similarly, if you see someone drinking from a water bottle, you might ask “What kind of water are you drinking?” But “What kind of water are y’all drinking?” addressed to a single person would suggest that the entire town was drinking bottled water, perhaps because the tap water had become contaminated. The two forms would never be conflated.

    Finally, all of y’all is simply how all of you is said in y’all dialects, and has exactly the same semantics as all of you does. (It is by no means the case that every plural you is replaced by y’all: context is very important, since y’all is informal though not stigmatized.) As for you all, it does not represent a different spoken form from y’all, any more than gonna represents a different spoken form from going to (in some instances): one may write you all but will still say y’all.

    Disclaimer: I’m not a native y’all-speaker myself, much less a Texan (“Never ask a man where he’s from: if he’s from Texas, he’ll tell you; and if not, why embarrass him?”). But I have been married to a North Carolinian for more’n thirty years, and I have this y’all thang down cold, y’all.

  3. Stan says:

    Jams: At face value, it does seem like a strange list of words. I like that very familiar words like and and what appear alongside odd ones like fopdoodle and bagonise (a nonce-word meaning “to anxiously wait for your suitcase to appear on the baggage claim carousel at an airport”).

    John: So singular y’all is not as strictly singular as it might appear. Thank you; I was unaware of this subtlety. It’s quite possible, though, that the Texan clerk saw Crystal arrive in the forecourt with a group of people (travelling companions remaining in a vehicle, for example), in which case his y’all would fit the criterion you describe. How large does the group need to be — is a group of two sufficient?

  4. johnwcowan says:

    I can’t rule out the scenario you describe absolutely, but it sounds wrong. You don’t say “Howdy!” (which, by the way, is a condensed form of “How do you do?”, though very different in register) to people who aren’t in your physical presence. Thus, one form of informal introduction is “Come and say howdy to Jim here”, addressed to someone at some distance away.”

    is a group of two sufficient?

    Sure. For example: “When are y’all due [to give birth]?” addressed to a husband is perfectly ordinary; to a wife it would sound strange, as there is no reason to imply a group reference. (No same-sex marriages in y’all country quite yet.)

    I suppose I should add that y’all is a monosyllable pronounced the same as yawl.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Most interesting Stan and a book worth tracking and reading.
    PS And I can never hear y’all without transposing (with an internal giggle) to the port of Youghal, Co. Cork where I spent many, many happy days.

  6. Stan says:

    John: The childbirth example is helpful, thank you. I think the pronunciation of y’all is pretty transparent, with or without the apostrophe.

    WWW: You would enjoy the book very much, I think. The Youghal connection didn’t occur to me — y’all is doubly unlikely ever to catch on there!

  7. I like the sound of this book and loved the post – I’m a sucker for anything about bones/skeletons,

  8. Stan says:

    Thanks, Ashley. Bone-house is a lovely metaphor, but that’s about all the skeletons there are in the book, I think.

  9. Stan – Youghal, surely, is “ye” country anyway. (That’s what my mother-in-law, from Dungarvin, says for plural “you”, anyway.)

  10. Stan says:

    Martyn: Yes, much of Ireland is ye country; I grew up with it myself, in the midwest, and with its associated possessive yeer.

  11. Dermot Ryan says:

    Is “oxygen thief” a kenning?

  12. […] whale’ also superficially resembles a kenning, to my […]

  13. […] metaphor called a kenning, a kind of riddle that expresses a noun in terms of a metaphor. Bone-house is poached from Beowulf, an epic Anglo-Saxon poem. Hopkins employs bone-house as a […]

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