Old-timey English and Uncleftish Beholding

February 2

The Economist ran an article recently, in its “Johnson” column (the language column, now on its “Prospero” arts and culture blog), about English purism and Dorset-dialect poet William Barnes (1801-1886). Barnes wanted to purge English of its “foreign” influences (well, you can keep the fifth-century foreign invaders, but… gotta draw the line somewhere!), so that “photograph” would become “sun-print”, “botany” would become “wortlore”, “meteor” would become “welkinfire”, and “forceps” would become “nipperlings”.

But mainly the article is interesting for linking to an essay called “Uncleftish Beholding” by Poul Anderson, where he undertakes to explain atomic theory using (almost) exclusively words of Germanic origin. Here goes (but you can read the whole thing here):

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make bindings. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and chokestuff.

This is like Up Goer Five (see also the related text editor), but for linguists.

Sasha Volokh lives in Atlanta with his wife and three kids, and is an associate professor at Emory Law School. He has written numerous articles and commentaries on law and economics, privatization, antitrust, prisons, constitutional law, regulation, torts, and legal history.
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