A lot of people are very fond of tracing the origins of words, such that a dictionary that does not provide etymological information can be a real disappointment. Our fascination for etymology, however, usually stops short of a passion for philology, i.e., understanding the relationship between words and culture and the principles that lie behind the changes in words and their meanings. The 19th century saw the heyday of philology, though a good deal of philological work was done in the early part of the 20th century; but by that time, there was a struggle in academic English departments between professors of literature and professors of language. With the rise of linguistics departments, the professors of language tended to lose ground in English departments, bringing on the decline of philology.
Owen Barfield's History in English Words is a late reminder of how fascinating philology can be. Barfield strategically selects words that have entered the English language to provide a brisk history of the English speaking people. As the conditions of life and our perspectives on the world changed, our language changed to express these new conditions and perspectives. Our history is revealed in our language.
Barfield's first chapter, "Philology and the Aryans," reaches back to the millennia prior to the advent of English. This is perhaps the most speculative, but also most interesting, facets of philology -- the attempt to identify common roots in recorded languages, to reconstruct prehistoric languages and thereby shed light on prehistoric culture. By the second chapter, "The Settlement of Europe," Barfield's subject becomes historical and he begins employing his primary method of study -- selecting newly introduced words to illustrate the changing currents of culture. In the early Middle Ages, words such as altar, candle, clerk, creed, deacon, hymn, martyr, mass, nun, priest, shrine, and temple entered the English language. This was, of course, a reflection of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the absence of such institutions among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and the centrality of religion to the lives of the post-conversion English speakers.
Later, in Modern England, the language was supplemented by a huge infusion of French and Latin words, but also words from other European languages, reflecting the integration of Europe and international commerce. Indeed, the Age of Discovery brought words to English from all over the world; however, the simple borrowing of words from other languages to enrich English does not adequately illustrate Barfield's study. The real work is done in subsequent chapters in which Barfield identifies important currents in the zietgeist of the English speaking people, for example, the rise of experimental science, the discovery of individuality, personality, and reason, and the hegemony of a mechanistic world view. Barfield illustrates each of these new currents of thinking with the new words that entered the English langauge that were needed to express the new ideas.
Much of this is not surprising, but some is quite startling and revealing. Barfield observes that after the Reformation a host of new words entered the language that began with the prefix "self-," e.g., self-conceit, self-liking, self-love, self-confidence, self-command, self-contempt, self-esteem, and self-pity, among others. Today we use most of these words without thinking, but their sudden, simultaneous appearance in our language is evidence of an important change in how people thought of themselves. The explosion of the "self-" prefix seems to reveal something much more subtle and deeper in the cultural changes of the time, whereas the appearance of new scientific terms to describe new instruments and processes is relatively unremarkable.
History in English Words is alternately unenlightening and exquisitely surprising, since much of the changes to our language are ones that we would easily understand and predict, given our general understanding of history, but others reveal a largely imperceptible plasticity of culture not marked by what is obvious to any historian.