History in English Words by Owen Barfield

“I have drawn from the well of language many a thought which I do not have and which I could not put into wordsC.G.Lichtenberg (forward to History in English Words).

These were my thoughts, exactly, while reading Owen Barfield’s History of English Words. I have read many books on linguistics and etymology, but few have enraptured me as much. Of course, as with all great books, it left me wanting more!

“Everything which must be said is almost too impossible to say well”( Valéry). As I attempt to write a valid review of History, I will use my mother-tongue, English, in which “one cannot understand without a working knowledge of at least two other languages”(Auden). In fact, according to W. H. Auden who wrote the Foreword for History, nine-tenths of the words comprising the English vocabulary are never even used by more than one-ninth of the population. This fact was comprised in 1953. I imagine this percentage is even higher today.

Barfield’s History is a great companion piece to Longfellow’s The Poems and Poets of Europe. In Poems, Longfellow also takes us through the history of the English language beginning with the Indo-European tongues. However, while Longfellow gives us a collection of poetry and culture from the rich histories of European countries, Barfield takes it one step further by giving current English words (current in 1926, original publication) whose derivation from other languages give us a larger context and history of that culture.

“In the common words we use everyday, the souls of the 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 the Sleeping Beauty(18).

History is not for the layman! While Barfield’s text has an air of sound scholarship and authenticity, however, it is essential reading for the lover of words and those interested in language and its origins. It combines history, etymology, and philosophy into the five chapters: “Philology and the Aryans;” “The Settlement of Europe;” “England Before the Reformation;” “Modern England.” The chapters discuss the influence on words that are spiritual, intellectual, as well as myth. The key words from a period’s contribution to the language are at the beginning of each chapter. For example, through Barfield’s study of comparative grammar, he sees the influences on language by the settlement of Europe, specifically the Greeks, Italians, Slavs, Teutons and Celts. From this area of Northern and Western Europe, a new country of forests produced the words for trees (beech, elm, hazel), birds (swallow, starling) and crops (corn, bean, meal).

In addition to the origin of words, Barfield emphasizes the “emotional character of words” and the responsibility of users of language. In the chapter on “Modern England”, Barfield reminds us of the wonderful influence of the Renaissance in terms of art and literature: bucolic, climax, drama, emphasis, encyclopedia, epilogue, hypothesis, hysterical, muse, paragraph, parallel, paraphrase, sagacious, scent we owe to this era. This also was a time of great scientific discovers and technics: dynamo, metronome, telescope, thermometer.

Some additional highlights from History:

  • Greek philosophers: Plato and Aristotle’s influence on language and extensive vocabulary and meanings of existing words
  • The Septuagint, the Vulgate and the ecclesiastical literature are extant through which we could trace the gradual importation into the Latin language
  • Tindal and Coverdale Bible translations to help evolve a tenderness towards all women and young children and to help us feel the warmth of human affection
  • Latin writers Cicero, Quintilian and Macrobius
  • Science of the Middle Ages through Latin translations of Hippocrates and Galen and the relations between body and soul
  • The stars and planets as living bodies: the Moon’s special connection with lunacy
  • Shakespeare’s enormous influence on his native tongue: play on words, give him his due, well on your way, too much of a good thing, the snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, more honoured in the breach than the observance
  • Jane Austen’s novels in which she employs the words romantic and picturesque, attitude, comic, dramatic, lyrical, point of view

It has been almost one hundred years since Barfield penned these words. Who will take up the gauntlet to examine the new words and meanings from this past century?

Work Cited

Owen Barfield. History in English Words. Foreword by W.H. Auden. London: Faber & Faber. 1953

**Special thanks to WordsandPeace for recommending this book!

Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com).