Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: History in English Words

I wish I had read this book earlier. Throughout all my reading of Owen Barfield, I wanted to know more about the philology that shaped his thoughts. I got a taste of that in Poetic Diction, but that was more about how poets use words than the words themselves. He always asserted that we could trace history through words but I only got glimpses of exactly how. History in English Words, then, shows how. It is a story of how words have changed, sometimes even flipping their meanings, and Barfield has an idea or two as to why they changed in that way.

Like most of Barfield, it has its pedantic or frustratingly obtuse moments but is at least five-sixths brilliant. This may be the best book to start on for someone looking to get into his work (perhaps this is for the historians, while Poetic Diction is for the poets?). There's one chapter in which he goes on about the stifling early church authorities in a manner that shows why C.S. Lewis and Barfield had their tiffs. Lewis would never take the Gnostic gospels as seriously as Barfield. Then there's the last chapter which sounds almost exactly like Tolkien's famous Fairy Stories writings at points. Tolkien fans, make sure to stick around for that last chapter.

If nothing else, this shows what you can do with an Oxford English Dictionary and a passion for words. Now that we have the technology to test some of these assertions about how, when, and why words changed to a degree unthinkable in Barfield's time, I think this little book could provide several theses's worth of hypotheses that Google lit searches could illuminate. I would like to see where Barfield's wrong, mostly because I have a hunch that more often than not he's right, and if so, then he's onto something. I'd like to trust but verify, and this book is about the original data Barfield's working from, so this has inside it a way to reproduce his assertions. Do words really internalize over time, swtiching from us being worked upon to us doing the working? Are Roman words really as external/concrete as Greek words are internal/abstract? What kind of shifts in meaning did the Septuagint's translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek force upon the Second-Temple thought and theology? So many questions, so little time.

The limiting reagent for me is the time. And the knowledge. And the background. And ... let's stop there before I delete this post in despair.

At any rate, this book will let you see depths and layers of meaning in most every word you see (and choose to use). If sitting in a Philology class taught by Barfield sounds like a good idea to you, don't wait for the MOOC. Read the book.

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