History in English Words

by Owen Barfield

This is a book report on History in English Words, by Owen Barfield, Lindisfarne Press, 1988. It was originally written in 1953 and updated in 1967.

I think of Owen Barfield as "the unknown Inkling." He was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, and a member of the informal Inkling society, but is much more obscure than those three, even Williams. He wrote no fiction that I know of, but his titles include Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances, both about philosophy and languages. He was a solicitor by trade.

History in English Words is a well-organized book, but its subject matter produces a rambling sort of non-linear organization. Barfield traces the development of English vocabulary and shows it as a clue to the history of ideas in the west generally and Europe in particular. The book divides into two parts. The first part, "The English Nation," traces the ancestry of English from Indo-European to the present. The second part, "The Western Outlook," divides our worldview into several categories and examines those categories through the appearance and changes of meaning in related words. Here is the table of contents:

Part I: The English Nation

I. Philology and the Aryans
II. The Settlement of Europe
III. England Before the Reformation
IV. Modern England

Part II: The Western Outlook

V. Myth
VI. Philosophy and Religion
VII. Devotion
VIII. Experiment
IX. Personality and Reason
X. Mechanism
XI. Imagination


I. Philology and the Aryans

By "Aryans" Barfield simply means the Indo-Europeans. In a footnote probably put in a later edition, he disclaims any connection to the Nazi idea of "Aryans."

In this chapter, Barfield explains how history of words can illuminate history in general and history of ideas in particular. In fact, history of words is about the only lead we have on the Aryans. As for the significance of linguistic history to the history of thought:

In the common words we use every day the souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men stand around us, not dead, but frozen into their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of Sleeping Beauty. The more common a word is and the simpler its meaning, the bolder very likely is the original thought which it contains and the more intense the intellectual or poetic effort which went to its making. Thus, the word quality is used by most educated people every day of their lives, yet in order that we should have this simple word Plato had to make the tremendous effort (it is one of the most exhausting which man is called on to exert) of turning a vague feeling into a clear thought. He invented the new word poiotes, "what-ness," as we might say, or "of-what-kind-ness," and Cicero translated it by the Latin qualitas, from qualis. Language becomes a different thing for us altogether if we can make ourselves realize, can even make ourselves feel how every time the word quality is used, say upon a label in a shop window, that the creative effort made by Plato comes into play again. Nor is the acquisition of such a feeling a waste of time; for once we have made it our own, it circulates like blood through the whole of the literature and life about us. It is the kiss which brings the sleeping courtiers to life.

II. The Settlement of Europe

In the first chapter, Barfield gives a conjectural picture of the original Aryans. In this chapter, he describes their expansion into India, but chiefly into Europe. One theme of the book, which first appears here, is that different linguistic and cultural groups have different strengths and emphases of outlook, which blend to the enrichment of later generations. In particular, Barfield notes how one particular concept is usually expressed (in English) by terms taken from Latin:

There is, in fact, scarcely a word in our language expressing even remotely the notion of "authority," which does not come to us from Latin: authority, chief, command, control, dictator, dominion, empire, government, master, officer, rule, subordinate, are some of them; and it is significant that the two Greek words which we use to express the same idea are despot and tyrant. Both these terms have a definite stigma attaching to them, and are employed very much more often by the foes of authority than by her friends. The Greeks were not the nation to establish a world-empire. They would have combined to bury Caesar, not to praise him.... The English lord and king, on the other hand, retain about them a hint of the possibility of affection. It is a mark of affection when sailors drop the Latin captain and adopt the Dutch skipper, and the substitution by landsmen of Old High German boss for Latin manager seems to have begun the same way. And lastly, when we wish to suggest a peculiar blend of dignity and chill self-consciousness, we use the name of the most remarkable of all Roman emperors. [August.]

Rome not only extended her jurisdiction over all Europe; she was responsible for the birth of a new idea in men's minds – the idea that "authority," as such, based on an abstraction called "law" and irrespective of real ties of blood or affection, of sympathy or antipathy, of religion or ownership, can exist as a relation between human beings.

The Strata of English

III. England Before the Reformation

In this chapter, we deal in still more detail with the fact that English is a language that has borrowed itself into existence, with a vocabulary containing several distinct strata of various origins.

Every one of these motions has left its mark on our language, though the traces of the earliest immigration – that of the Celts – are rather scarce. The clearest vestiges of it are to be found in the proper names of our rivers, for a surprising number of these contain one or the other of the various Celtic terms for "water" or "river," e.g. avon, dwr (ter or der), uisge (wye, usk, is, ax), while the other parts of the name are often composed of wrods for "water" taken from another Aryan language, as in Derwentwater, Windermere, Easeburn, Ashbourne.... An ingenious theory has been evolved to account for this. In the case of the Dur-beck in Nottinghamshire, and the Dur-bach in Germany, it has been supposed that in the first place a body of Celtic immigrants squatted by the side of a stream which, as they were not extensive travelers, they knew simply as the dwr – "The Water." Their Teutonic successors inquired the name of the stream, and on learning that it was dwr, naturally assumed that this was a proper name. They accordingly adopted it, and tacked on one of their own words for "water" – back or beck, just as we may speak of the "Avon River" or the "River Ouse." The phenomenon occurs so persistently both in this country and all over Europe that this explanation can hardly be altogether fanciful.

Jim Burrows tells me a similar pile-up of mis-matched roots happens in the names of hills and mountains, e.g. "Mount Hillberg."

Latin enters English by several doors:

It will be noticed that nearly all these words are directly descended from the Latin, beef going back through 'boeuf' to 'bov-em,' master to 'magister,' duke to 'dux,'... Thus already, by the thirteenth century, we can trace in our vocabulary four distinct layers of Latin words. There are the Latin words learnt by our ancestors while they were still on the Continent, such as camp, mile, and street; there are the Latin words brought over by the Roman invaders, of which port and Chester were given as surviving examples; and thirdly there are those words – altar, candle, nun,... brought over by the Christian missionaries as described earlier in this chapter. These three classes are reckoned to account for about four hundred Latin words altogether; and lastly there is this great deposit of Norman-French words, of which the number must have been running into the thousands.

We are so used to borrowing Latin words through French that we sometimes Anglicize a new Latin word by first Gallicizing it:

Familiar French-English terminations like -tion, -ty, -age, -able, -on, were nearly as common in Chaucer as they are in the pages of an average modern writer. Begotten on Latin words by generations of happy-go-lucky French and English lips, they were fixed for ever by the printing press, and today, if we want to borrow a word directly from Latin, we still give it a shape which tacitly assumes that it came to us through the French language at about that time. ...so whoever introduced, let us say, the word heredity in the nineteenth century went through the instinctive process of deriving from the Latin 'hereditare' an imaginary French word, 'herediti,' and converting that latter into heredity.

The Great Neologism Plague of 1700

IV. Modern England

When the New Learning brought English writers back into contact with many long-lost classics (see Topic 230), a flood of Latin-based coinages entered our vocabulary. Barfield lists some of these:

accomodate, capable, capacious, compute, corroborate, distinguish efficacy, estimate, insinuate, investigate

Some of them, however, have dropped out again:

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Francis Bacon, who is not a fanciful writer, was using such unfamiliar expressions as contentation, contristation, digladiation, morigeration, redargution, ventosity, ... and somewhat before this, when the Classical influx was at its height, it was conspicuous enough to call forth several amusing parodies.

By the way, it turns out that we spell "debt" and "doubt" with that stupid B because the Renaissance scholars who coined them from Latin words wanted to show off the Latin ancestry – and of course the Latin ancestor has an audible B in it.

Greek terms started to flow into English, too:

The number of technical terms of art and literature is particularly noticeable, and it was now [15th century] that the foundations were laid of that almost automatic system whereby a new Greek-English word is coined to mark each advance that is made in science, and especially in technics. Automatic is itself an example, and it is hardly necessary to add chronometer, dynamo, magneto, metronome, telescope, theodolite, thermometer,...

And here's the intellectual economy of nations at work again:

That vast theoretical terms like liberty, equality, and fraternity should be borrowed by England from France in return for committee, jury, meeting, ... that the French ideologue and doctrinaire should be bartered for utilitarian and experimental – these fact have been taken to indicate a certain division of function in the economy of European social evolution, the Frenchman producing the abstract moral ideals and the Englishman attempting to clothe them with reality.

Metaphysical Vocabulary

V. Myth

In this chapter, Barfield traces the decline of native Roman religion through the linguistic history of its gods:

In the difference between the material associations of cupidity and the more imaginative ones of erotic we begin already to divine a fundamental dissimilarity between Greek and Roman mythology. Other words which come to us from Roman religion are cereal, genius, fate, fortune, fury, grace, June, mint, money, Saturday, vesta, the names of the planets, contemplate, sacrifice, temple, Host (from "hostia," the victim which was sacrificed), augury, and auspice. ...

As time went on, Roman religious feeling quickly changed in two almost opposite ways. On the one hand it attached itself more and more to concrete and material objects, and, on the other, its gods and goddesses were felt less and less as living beings, and more and more as mere abstract intellectual conceptions. Yet these two changes were not really opposite, but complementary. For as the visible part of a goddess like Ceres became more and more solid, as she came more and more to be used simple as a synonym for corn, the invisible part of her naturally grew more and more attenuated. Thus, the mythical world was much less real to the Romans than it had been to the Greeks. It was more like a world of mental abstractions. ...

We may say, in fact, that by the time Christianity began to spread in the Roman Empire, Roman official religion had become divorced from feeling altogether, its dry bones remaining little more than a conventional system of nomenclature. Not that the new religion had no serious rivals; but the doctrines of Stoics and Epicureans, the Mystery Schools, and cults such as that of Mithras, had little historical connection with Roman mythology.

VI. Philosophy and Religion

Continuing the theme of pragmatic Roman contrasted with cerebral Greek:

The difference between Greek and Roman character, which is marked so plainly by the way in which Aryan myths developed among the two peoples and moulded the finer meanings of their languages, is evident in many other English words besides those which we can actually trace back to such myths. For instance, the Greek 'scandalizein' and the Latin 'offendere' both meant to "cause to stumble," but for us there is a subtle difference between scandalize and offend; for while scandalize and scandal merely hint at the liveliness of an emotion, offend and offence convey a sober warning of its probable results. ... What the Roman felt about the whole business of book-learning and disputing and thinking and talking philosophy is indeed conveyed to us clearly enough by the meaning of the Latin 'schola,' from which we have taken school. But to a Greek all this had been merely the natural way of spending his spare time. 'Schole' was the common Greek word for "leisure."

Naturally enough, we don't hear much more about Latin in the rest of the material on philosophy. Instead, Barfield talks about the founders of philosophy and the way their work contributes to our language:

Thus in Aristotle's imagination the two worlds, outer and inner, met and came into contact in quite a new way. ... For, curiously enough, the first result was a pronounced hardening and sharpening of the mind's own outlines. Struggling to fit herself, as into a glove, to the processes of cause and effect observed in physical phenomena, the mind became suddenly conscious of her own shape. She was astonished and delighted. She had discovered logic.

Symbolically enough, just as Plato invented the word and idea of "quality," Aristotle, following his example, invented "quantity," "how-much-ness," 'posotes' in Greek.

"Logic," 'logike' in Greek, is related to 'logos,' the word for word, and Barfield has an interesting remark on that pivotal word in theology:

It was the Stoics, too, who gradually burdened the little Greek word "logos" with the eright of a whole metaphysical theory of the relation between spirit and matter. "Logos" in Greek had always meant both "word" (an expressed meaning) and the creative faculty in human beings – "Reason," as it is often translated -- which expresses itself by making and using words. The Stoics were the first to identify this human faculty with that divine Mind (Nous) which earlier Greek philosophers had perceived as pervading the visible universe. They were the first to make the progressinve incarnation of thought in audible sound a part of the creative working of God in the world; and it is to them accordingly, with their deep sense of the divine significance of words and their origin, that we owe the word etymology, the first half of which is composed of a poetical Greek adjective meaning "true." Though he had never heard of Christianity, Philo, importing into the theory a certain Semitic awfulness, actually called this mysterious "logos" the "only-begotten son."

The Rise of Reflection

VII. Devotion

Another major trend that Barfield traces through words is the gradual increase of self-awareness, or, perhaps more exactly, the increasingly articulate or public nature of self-awareness.

If medieval Europe is cut off from Greece and Rome by her imaginative conception of women, she is cut off even more completely by her abstention from slavery. Of this development, thus negatively stated, there are few, if any, signs in our language; but traces are by no means wanting of a certain deeper and more interior change which must have underlain the other two. Perhaps is can best be expressed as a new consciousness of the individual human soul. On the one hand the sense of its independent being and activity, of bottomless depths and soaring heights within it, to be explored in fear and trembling or with hope and joy – with delight and mirth, or with agony, anguish, despair, repentance – and on the other hand that feeling of its being an inner world, which has since developed so fully that this book, for example, has fallen naturally into two halves.

In this connection it is particularly interesting to note the appearance of conscience in the thirteenth century. In classical times the Lain "conscientia" seems to have meant something more like "consciousness" or "knowledge"...

The conscience as an interior councilor, and one specifically concerned with matters of right and wrong, is a modern development.

Another sign of the medieval exploration of the inner world is the rise of psychological allegory (general love allegory or battles between virtues and vices) in medieval literature. There was a similar allegorical phase in late classical antiquity.

VIII. Experiment

Barfield sees the development of mathematics and science as another aspect or result of the inward exploration of Europe:

If, therefore, there is any truth in the belief of the old Greek philosophers and of some modern historians that the study of mathematics has its origin in the observed movements of the stars, the progress is of the same nature as that which we noticed at the end of the last chapter. Is it too fanciful to picture to ourselves how, drawn into the minds of a few men, the relative positions and movements of the stars gradually developed a more and more independent life there until, with the rise in Europe first of trigonometry and then of algebra, they detached themselves from the outside world altogether? And then by a few great men like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, these abstract mathematics were re-fitted to the stars which had given them birth, and the result was that cosmogony of infinite spaces and a tiny earth in which our imaginations roam today? When the Aryan imagination had at last succeeded in so detaching its "ideas" about the phenomena of the universe that these could be "played with," as mathematicians say, in the form of equations, then, no doubt, it was a fairly easy matter to turn them inside out.

(A quibble: I think Barfield means "cosmology," not "cosmogony," and the Earth was already known to be tiny in medieval times, though space was reckoned to be about the size of the Solar System, rather than infinite.)

Personality and Reason

IX. Personality and Reason

This chapter continues the theme of rising self-consciousness, but also has some interesting social remarks:

When Charles II returned from France to an England which had long been growing more and more sullen under the reproving glances of a middle-aged Puritanism, the suppressed thoughts and feelings of fashionable English society evidently lost no time in rising to the surface. The appearance in the seventeenth century of new expressions such as to banter, to burlesque, to ridicule, to prim, travesty, badinage, and, above all, prig, helps to fill in for the imagination the deep gulf between the Pilgrim's Progress and the Country Wife. Even to those totally unacquainted with the literature of the period, this little archipelago of words might betray with unmistakable solidity the moral geography of the submerged region. For it marks a cycle of events which has been repeated over and over again in the history of humanity, in its families, its societies, its nations. Certain moral qualities gain respect for themselves; the respect brings with it material benefits; weaker brethren affect the moral qualities in order to acquire the material benefits; hypocrisy is detected; all morality is treated as hypocrisy. The trite little cycle spins like a whirligig round and round the social history of the world, but this is a good place to put a finger on it, for it is a process in which the question of the meaning of words takes a particularly active part. It is, in fact, one of the few occasions upon which ordinary men, neither scientists nor poets, will deliberately attempt to alter the meanings of the words they must use.

And now, turning the whole study of words back on itself:

It may be remarked in pasing that there is no surer or more illuminating way of reading a man's character, and perhaps a little of his past history, than by observing the contexts in which he prefers to use certain words. Each of us would no doubt choose his own list of test words – and the lists themselves, if we were foolish enough to reveal them, would probably present a fairly accurate diagram of our own leading propensities. Fortunately, the subject is too long to elaborate.

Why, Owen, you little tease...

Next, he examines the appearance of the historical perspective. This did not show up until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ancient and modern as a pair of contrasts, and the word progressive first appear in Bacon's essays. The 17th century saw the first appearance of antiquated, century, decade, epoch, Gothic, out-of-date, primeval, contemporary, contemproaneous, synchronize, synchronous, and some other temporal terms that have since become obsolete, like contemporal, co-temporary, contemporize, isochronal, and synchronistic, which last the Jungians have revived or re-invented with a different meaning.

When we try combing the dictionaries – Greek, Latin, English, and others – for words expressing a sense of the "march of history," or indeed of a past or future differing at all essentally from the present, we are forced to the conclusion that this kind of outlook on time is a surprisingly recent growth. ... Lables like Middle Ages, Renaissance,... are none of them earlier than the eighteenth century, which also saw the new expressions develop and development, and the fact that the significant words anachronism, evolution, and prehistoric, with the new perspectives they denote, only appeared during the nineteenth century may make us doubtful whether the mists of time have even yet fallen wholly from our eyes.

Barfield then discusses the imaginative difficulties of working yourself into, say, the Medieval worldview, and remarks (with true modern reflexivity):

Possibly the Middle Ages would have been equally bewildered at the facility with which twentieth-century minds are brought to believe that, intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century.

Though these two developments – the birth of an historical sense and the birth of our modern self-consciousness – may seem at first sight to have little connection with one another, yet it is not difficult, on further consideration, to perceive that they are both connected with that other and larger process which has already been pointed to as the story told by the history of the Aryan languages as a whole. If we wished to find a name for it, we should have to coin some such ugly word as "internalization." It is the shifting of the centre of gravity of consciousness from the cosmos around him into the personal human being himself. The results are twofold: on the one hand the peculiar freedom of mankind, the spontaneous impulses which control human behavior and destiny, are felt to arise more and more from within the the individual, as we saw in the semantic change of such words as conscience, disposition, spirit, temper,... in the application to inner processes of words like dissent, gentle, perceive, religion, and in the Protestant Reformation; on the other the spiritual life and activity felt to be immanent in the world outside – in star and planet, in herb and animal, in the juices and "humours" of the body, and in the outward ritual of the Church – these grow feebler. The conception of "laws" governing this world arises and grows steadily more impersonal; words like consistency, pressure, tension,... are found to describe matter "objectively" and disinterestedly, and at the same time the earth ceases to be the center round which the cosmos revolves.

As an example of the depersonalization of the outside world, Barfield gives the change in the meaning of duty. Originally, it meant something owed to someone. Now, it has expanded so that its primary meaning is an abstract moral obligation; the personal relationship has become secondary and need not be involved at all.

He remarks that when a Medieval poet writes something like "The day was merry and fair enough," his exact meaning is a slippery one to moderns. He does not mean, as a modern would naturally assume, that "the day was merry" means the day makes us feel merry. Nor does the medieval mean, as we might next suppose, that the day itself is feeling merry. Rather, he means that the day is full of merriment, just as it is full of light or warmth, and makes us merry in just the same way as it illuminates or warms us. For us, an emotion is an event that happens inside us; for the medieval, it is an influence that comes upon us from something. There is no separation between objective stimulus and subjective response. This is the assumption constantly standing behind the medieval idea of astrological influences.

These ideas, by the way, are explored at much greater length in Barfield's books, Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances.

The Inward Turn

X. Mechanism

The last two chapters of Barfield's book are devoted to the two halves into which the world was split by the inward turning of human attention – impersonal matter and immaterial mind.

In the chapter on Mechanism, he largely explores how thoroughly mechanical and popularized scientific metaphors have infiltrated our language. For instance, automatic, which is literally "self-moving," has gone from meaning "volitional" to meaning almost the opposite, because of its wide appliance to independently working machinery.

Shortly after clockwork became the high tech of the Renaissance, people began speaking of the "springs" of human action. (And here I thought the metaphor referred to springs of water.)

More recently, the biological sciences have started infiltrating:

One has only to pick up a journalistic article on almost any subject and read it, endeavouring to let the words mean only what they did a hundred years ago, to see how the whole scheme of Natural Selection can lurk unseen, but not unfelt, behind some colourless little word like adapt, competition, gregarious, modification, protective, selection, and even animal, facts, law, life, man, Nature,... Or we can see it in the curious, absolute use of the word fit, in the sense of "physically healthy," which, appearing first in the seventies, is obviously due to the famous phrase, the "survival of the fittest" (i.e. the fittest to survive in the struggle for existence).

The impact of the mechanistic model of the universe also shows up in the new crop of words for describing things that are not this default:

The new cosmos – a complex of matter and forces proceeding mechanically from spiral nebula to everlasting ice – took such a firm hold on the imagination of Europe that labels like spiritualism, spiritualist, spiritualistic * were employed to describe those who believed it was anything more, and even Vitalism and Vitalist to distinguish those who held that life, as such, had any purpose or significance. ... The more automatic the cosmos, apparently, the more the vital ego must needs feel itself detached. At any rate, we fund upward of forty words hyphenated with self created in the nineteenth century, and of these only about six (self-acting, self-regulating,...) are mechanical. Nor was it only the material world from which men felt themselves more aloof. Herbert Spencer remarked on the recent extension of the meaning of the word phenomenon to cover the thoughts of human beings – a point of view which suggests an increased degree of detachment evenfrom thought itself; and an enormous number of words with terminations such as -ism, -ist, -ite, -ology, -arian, are indications of a more contemplative attitude to all that we ourselves do and feel and think. What a difference between being feminine and being feminist, between hope and optimism, romance and romanticism, between Christianity and Christology, between liking vegetables and being a vegetarian!

* Spiritualist, however, is found as early as the seventeenth century; it it was employed in the sense of "fanatical," etc., or with the more technical meaning of "one who supports ecclesiastical authority." Its use as a purely philosophical designation seems to date from about the middle of the nineteenth century, and the modern "table-rapping" implications later still.

XI. Imagination

In this last chapter, Barfield discusses how imagination and creativity have been given an enormous boost in respect and status as the result of the inward turn of Western attention. He remarks that we may casually describe a sunset as "Turneresque" or a person's body as "Praxitelean," but that making nature follow art this way is probably a modern way of speaking, as is modern respect for art and artists:

In point of fact, however, it is probable that this was not known before the time of the Renaissance, when men's notions of art changed so suddenly, when, indeed, their very consciousness of it as a spearate, unrelated activity, something which can be distinguished in thought from a "craft," a "trade," or a religious ceremony, seems to have first sprung into being. Moreover, the ancient word art used to include in its purview not only these meanings, but also most of those which we now group under the heading science. In the Middle Ages, the Seven Liveral Arts -- Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy – were contrasted with the "servile" or "mechanical" arts – that is, handicrafts involving manual labour.

A contrast inherited from antiquity and widely believed responsible for a considerable retardation of science and technology.

It is only since the Renaissance that poets, painters, and composers have been compared to magicians or demiurges. Barfield sees in artistic creativity a sort of return without undoing along the path of "internalization":

It was a cosmos in which the spirit and spontaneity of life had moved out of Nature and into man. The magic of Persia, the Muses of Greece, the witches and fairies and charms and enchantments of Romance – all these had been locked safely in man's bosom, there to sleep until the trump of Romanticism sounded its call to imagination to give back their teeming life to Nature.

Being only middling romantic myself, I can't feel such a tremendous significance for the Romantic Movement in the arts. Barfield has studied Romanticism far more than I, so I will tentatively bow to his greater authority, but my own impression is that romantic art, taken at face value, does simply wish away the depersonalization of nature and the internalization of emotion, volition, and value.

However, books like Barfield's always lead me to ask "What next?" I know cultural evolution is far from over, and I suspect the general surge of internalization is still going strong. I suspect new distinctions in the language will arise, reflecting new analyses of experience, and I wonder what they will be and what the effect will be on daily life and society.

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