Why you should learn (many) languages

Vikings like this guy have something to do with why there are so many French words in the English language.

Vikings like this guy may have something to do with why there are so many French words in the English language. (c) Creative Commons – www.DeviantArt.com

Growing up, I was always fascinated with languages.

Even as a child, the idea of communicating with people from a different culture seemed terribly exciting to me.

Little did I know back then that the many languages I would dabble with would come in useful, even enable, my wanderlust.

But there is a deeper layer to knowing languages, even superficially.

There is something about picking up different languages that really stretches the mind’s capacity to learn, and to set one down a path of linguistic and even historical adventure.

While I am no etymologist, polyglot nor world historian, I do possess enough natural curiosity to slay a clowder of cats (and yes, I had to look up some of those words).

With that in mind, here are three observations I’ve made by mushing my exploration into language and world history – and maybe give you another reason (or three) to learn languages.

When is a mansion not a house?

Have you ever wondered why “garment” sound like a more fancy word than “clothes?” In case you haven’t already guessed, I’m about to pontificate about that.

You see, once upon a time, England was a feudal territory of France, with the King of England also being the Duke of Normandy.

This was due in large part to the Norman invasion and settlement of northern France in the 900s by Viking forces (Vikings = Northman = Norman), followed by the successful invasion of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, depending on your historical bias).

The result was that the territories of Norman England straddled the English Channel for centuries, with the throne of England being in Normandy for the duration.

That also made the King of England a vassal of the King of France, which may explain the age-old Anglo-Franco rivalry.

But I digress.

Because the conquerors of England were the Norman French, French displaced Middle English (with its Germanic Anglo-Saxon roots) as the language of royalty, the court, and the aristocracy.

Middle English fell to informal use and to the lower classes.

Thus, while the aristocracy slipped on garments in their mansions, the commoners pulled on kluthes (clothes) in their husian (house, or hausen in German).

Knights were courageous, while a brave foot soldier was bold.

And so on.

When Arabs Led The World in Math and Science

It’s hard to tell these days, but there was a time when the Arabs led the medieval world in the pursuit of knowledge, medicine, philosophy, science, math and invention.

Here's something we drink every day whose name has an Arabic origin.

Here’s something we drink every day that traces its name to the Abbasid Caliphate, during a time when Arabic culture and science dominated the world.

The Abbasid Caliphate, with its seat of government in Baghdad, came to be after years of a successful civil war between rival Muslim factions.

This regime prioritized scholarship and knowledge.

This led to what is today known as the Islamic Golden Age, where Muslim and non-Muslim scholars from China, India, Egypt, Persia, Greek, Roman, and Byzantium gathered at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad to translate the world’s surviving tomes into Arabic.

The Abbasid Caliphate is the reason why so many classical works of antiquity, such as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, survive to this day.

In fact, for a period in time stretching over seven centuries, with Europe languishing in its Dark Ages, the international language of learning was Arabic.

It’s no accident that several mathematical and scientific terms in English have Arabic origins, such as:

  • Algebra.
  • Algorithm.
  • Alchemy.
  • Alkali.
  • Benzene.
  • Calcium.
  • Cipher.
  • Zero.

But there are others that we encounter in our everyday lives, like:

  • Caravan.
  • Coffee.
  • Ghoul.
  • Jar.
  • Lemon and lime.
  • Magazine.
  • Sofa.
  • Sugar.
  • Syrup.

There are loads more. If this has intrigued you, check out Wikipedia for a big, big list.

All Roads Lead to Rome … or to Chang’an.

One of the most well regarded Chinese empires was the Han dynasty, which ruled between 206 BC and 220 AD. Its capital was in Chang’an (near modern day Xi’an).

Chances are, neither the Romans nor the Han civilizations had official contact. But it sure is intriguing!

Chances are, neither the Romans nor the Han civilizations had official contact. But it sure is intriguing to ponder!

It was China’s second imperial dynasty, and it was arguably a high point in Chinese history in terms of conquest, art, trade and technology.

Where am I going with this bit of trivia?

Well, the Han Dynasty existed in roughly the same time as a mighty empire that you would definitely have heard of – Rome.

As far as historians know, there was no major official contact between the two behemoths.

But goods were definitely being traded via merchants through the Silk Road, so named by German geographer and scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen (literally, Seidenstraße in German).

Chinese silk not only tied these two empires together in trade, it also bound them in language.

The Chinese word for silk is “si” (絲), and it is likely that the traders and merchants who brought the silk into the Roman empire were not the Chinese of the Han Dynasty, but middlemen who had traveled the steppes.

The Latin word for silk is sericum, brought by people the Romans called the Seres, who hailed from the land of Sērĭcă.

 See any patterns yet?

The Han Dynasty referred to the Roman empire as the DaQin, (大秦), and attempted to send an ambassador, named Gan Ying (甘英) to Rome.

The guy never made it, but he did get as far as a large body of water he called the Western Sea. Historians think that was probably what we call the Black Sea.

There have been reports of multiple diplomats sent to China by sea by various Roman emperors, including the first recorded embassy to the Han Dynasty, possibly by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Here’s the thing.

Roman cartographers knew about a powerful empire in the Far East that was reachable by sea, but seemed to not have connected it with the source of the silk they so prized.

Ptolemy’s 2nd Century Geography makes a distinction between the empire Serica (the Land of Silk) where the valuable good was exported via the Silk Road; and a mighty empire called Sinae (Latin for Qin, the short-lived dynasty before the Han), which was accessed by ship.

Ptolemy’s World Map (c) Wikipedia

How close did the two empires get, though?

The Roman empire at its greatest extent, under Emperor Trajan in 117 AD, reached as far east as the Persian Gulf and the shores of the Caspian Sea.

The Han Dynasty’s greatest extent was near the eastern foothills of Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains.

That’s around 2,000 miles across rough and treacherous terrain passable by small trade caravans, but close to impossible for major armies.

So, as far as we can tell, the Romans and the Han never did have official exchanges.

Just think though, what they would have said to each other – assuming they even knew each other’s language!

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