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REVIEW OF HISTORY IN ENGLISH WORDS BY OWEN BARFIELD

Blurb

For more than three-quarters of a century, Owen Barfield produced original and thought-provoking works that made him a legendary cult figure. History in English Words is his classic excursion into history through the English language. This popular book provides a brief, brilliant history of the various peoples who have spoken the Indo-European tongues. It is illustrated throughout by current English words whose derivation from other languages, and whose history in use and changes of meaning, record and unlock the larger history. “In our language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust…. Language has preserved for us the inner, living history of our soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness” —Owen Barfield.

My Review

Owen Barfield wrote this book in the 1950s, but as it deals with the way words have come down to us through the ages, it remains relevant to this day.

This fascinating book takes us through the history of words. Barfield begins with the Greek and Latin words that have been incorporated into our language, and the changes that have come about in them. He then goes on to discuss how we can trace the travels of many peoples across Europe by looking at the way words have changed, and the words that were in common use.

I find it impossible to distill what Barfield is saying in a few words. It took him a whole book! But it shows how people’s thoughts and perceptions developed through the ages.

This book is a valuable handbook for those of us who write historical fiction. It tells when various words came into use, thus helping us not to write about clocks striking before they were invented, or as is said in the forward, writing about Dr Johnson (of dictionary fame) speaking on the telephone.

Those are obvious things, but there are words that we use today that are fairly modern.

An example is found in the words, pity, gentle and mercy.
Pity comes from ‘pietas’, meaning piety, gentle, from ‘gentilis’, meaning of the same family, or later, of noble birth, while mercy comes from ‘merces’, a reward, probably later, a reward in heaven for good works on Earth.

None of these words were known before the 13th century, so in a Viking Saga, a writer should not use them. This applies to many other words, as well as the obvious ones coming from scientific research, and show how human thinking has developed throughout the ages.

This is not an easy read, but a fascinating one, nonetheless. I give it 5*

Have you come across words that are used in historical fiction that are out of place? It’s easily done, believe me. I’ve probably done it myself, although I hope not! Let me know in the comments.

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