Monday, January 11, 2016

Eating in the Mother Tongue

Yes, I took several years of Latin. But I am far from proficient in the language. I always mess up non-verb endings (and sometimes verb endings too). I know that Britania est insula sed Italia est peninsula. I know Gaul is divided into three parts. I know that J and Z aren’t real letters and that punctuation is an afterthought. But even after years of contorting my mouth like Eliza Doolittle to list endings (-us, -i, -um, -is), I don’t really know the language.

It has helped with my English. I understand structure and grammar in a more fundamental way. And I often can find the root word of something or impress people with “big words” that are really just Anglicized Latin. English is really a fascinating language, and I’m amazed that anyone bothers to learn it at all. It’s a distorted cluster of Germanic-Anglo-Saxon words and Latin-French words and other languages gathered along the way. English comes from being conquered and then doing some conquering; it’s violent and excessive. 

As a general rule, “home” words, common, everyday words, come from German, while the more elaborate, legal, or detailed words come from Latin. Mother from mutter, house from haus, church from kirche; patriotism from patria, mutation from mutare, documentary from docere. Knowing either German or Latin helps one see the roots of English, as well as the history of the placement and importance of that word in the English world. But sometimes, words take me by surprise, showing to be more complex than I imagined. 

A good example is the word chapel. It means “a small or private place to worship.” I had always assumed it had a history like church/kirche, an older word meaning basically the same thing. However, the word chapel comes from the Latin cappella, meaning “hooded cloak.” The first chapel, located in France, held the cloak of St. Martin de Tours as a relic. The building became associated with the cloak, and now every chapel in French, Italian, and English bears the memory of St. Martin’s cloak. If the Latin cappella looks familiar to you, it’s because it’s the same root as the Italian-to-English phrase a cappella, which means “without instrumentation” but literally means “in the style of the chapel.” Not only was chant the preferred music of the Church for many centuries, but one isn’t going to fit a lot of instruments into a chapel.

Which gets me to the word that got me thinking about all of this: companion. It means a person with whom one spends a lot of time or shares an experience. The word company derives from companion. While company can have military or business connotations, companion is more interpersonal, so it’s surprising that it’s Latin-rooted. It should be one of those cozy, “home,” German words, right? No, it’s a Latin phrase: cum panea or “with bread.” A companion is someone with whom you break bread. The meal is the core of the relationship. Creating a connection to another person is a call to the Eucharist. “With bread” is the key to physical survival, key to bonding with others, key to salvation.

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