Tuesday 14 December 2010

The Crisis (1)

“The search for the earliest puns in this country,” said Reverend Hawker, leaning back in his chair, and revealing on his old clerical shirt a variety of stains – gravy, wine and smudges of cigarette ash -- somewhat resembling a map, “takes us back to the Norman Conquest. From that point on, the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons and the Old French of the Normans jostled for space on this island, mingling like the leaping waters of two tributaries at a confluence. Many were the words in French that had the same sounds as words in Anglo-Saxon, and thus puns arose, because these words invariably had different meanings.

“Then, during the Renaissance, many thousands more words were introduced from French, Latin and Greek, making English the language we treasure today, a language unparalleled in its capacity for punning!”

Algernon Swift leaned forward in that intense way of his. “While your theory has the benefits of long age and wide acceptance,” he began, “there is little evidence that it has any relation to the truth. Of course, the situation you describe may have led to some comic misunderstandings during the Middle English period, but ...”

Reverend Hawker raised his hand towards the rebellious Swift. “You would deny that one of the greatest puns in our literature relies on just such a mingling of languages?” And Hawker recited the famous passage from Milton’s Paradise Regained:

“Him thought he by the brook of Cherith stood
And saw the ravens with their horny beaks
Food to Elijah bringing even and morn --
Though ravenous, taught to abstain from what they brought.

“... where ‘raven’ has a different meaning in its French and Old English derivations.”

“I do not deny it,” said Algernon Swift, “but, I tell you, such puns are an exception. I have recently conducted a statistical survey – Reverend Hawker, do not roll your eyes! do not sigh so heavily! -- and, of the puns I studied, over 85% were cases where both words derived from French or Latin roots. The merest fraction combined words derived from the Romance languages with similar-sounding ones of Germanic origin. In fact, those Germanic words were far more likely to pun with other words of Germanic origin ...”

I, meanwhile, put another log on the fire, blew on it, and watched the sparks fly up the chimney. The night was closing in on Hawker’s Pot and I pictured, in my mind’s eye, the black trees in the thickening twilight of the park. Bare, leafless, soon to be lost in darkness, those trees had nothing to do with puns. Nor, I began to suspect for the first time that evening, did the wider world beyond them. I put the thought quickly to the back of my mind and watched the bright fire in the grate. How it crackled and sparked and wheezed! Hawker and Swift talked on.

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