2007-11-24

Free Rice and the Origin of You

Why You're An American. Or Not.
Dave again. I know you're sick of me but I have to get this out. Today's post is basically a really long way of telling you how to get free rice. But you just might find yourself in the process. Regard:

French is a Romance language. This means it's a language descended from Latin, which spread through most of Western Europe via Roman conquest starting in about 200 B.C. But after the Roman Empire fell in about 150, many of the areas they conquered (i.e. Italy [which wasn't Italy then, but just territory north and south of Rome], France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, Belgium, etc.) continued to speak Latin. They'd been speaking it for 300 years, so why stop now? But over the next 1400 years the Latin the people spoke in each of these various regions evolved independently and therefore differently from the Latin spoken in every other region, until by the year 1500 no one was really speaking Latin anymore, and each of these different regions basically had their own language. That's why we have Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. It all came from Latin, thanks to Rome.

Then - as everyone knows - in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Soon after that, at the point of the sword and their bad breath (which spread a lot of deadly germs) the Spanish began making almost all of Central and South America speak their language (except Brazil), while the Dutch and then the English settled what is now the US and Canada. English was off and running. Except for in part of Eastern Canada, which was settled by the French so that now half of Canada hates the other half.

But back to Europe for a minute, where in about 100 A.D. the Romans also conquered a large part of England. But the people didn't take to their new leaders so much, and the Romans weren't that hip on staying either. England, Scotland and Wales have terribly wet weather, so when the Empire started to crumble the Romans basically said, "I hate all this rain. We came here last and we're leaving here first. Let's go back to southern France or Spain where the weather is good." And they got out. Then, in about 500 A.D. a bunch of Germans and Danes, accustomed to horrible weather, sailed down the North Sea and landed in England, destroying everything in their path, including Latin. And they stayed. As a result, while England is only separated from France by 22 miles between Dover and Calais, they're a world apart language-wise. French is a Romance (Latin) language while English is a Germanic language. So if you've ever thought English sounds like German, maybe you were right. I don't think it does, though. I think German sounds a lot like someone getting ready to throw up. Instead, I think English sounds a lot more like French.

That's because in 1066 the King of England died. Edward the Confessor wasn't a very prolific guy and had no children. Since the English were about as smart then as people in Saudi Arabia are today (a thousand years later), the people insisted on a new king but nobody knew who that would be. They were sort of like ants: everything's cool and they're doing fine running along their long narrow line to get to that strawberry left on the counter overnight, but as soon as some person comes and sticks his finger in the middle of that line, all hell breaks loose. King Edward's lack of children was like that finger on the counter: the place went crazy.

A bunch of people laid claim to the English throne. Chief among them, it turns out, was a man from Northern France named Guillaume. Guillaume was a French noble from a town near the northern French coast called Bayeux (or at least his brother was from there), and when he heard that the English royal court had chosen Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, as the new king, he was not happy. Being a rich man he assembled an army, mostly of hired mercenaries, and waited out some storms until he could cross La Manche ("The Sleeve" in French, otherwise known as the English Channel). Since they traveled La Manche at about one mile an hour, the trip took a few days even though it's not that far.

In late 1066 they landed at a certain point on the south English coast and promptly marched to a patch of grassland which now houses a town called "Battle". Oh yeah, and on the way to Battle they destroyed everything in their path. That was the way it worked back then.

At that time Battle wasn't called Battle. It didn't have a name because there was nothing there but hills. The animals that lived there, however, probably knew they were fairly close to a town called Hastings, because when one of them would get shot by a bow and arrow, the hunter probably came from there. The animals thought Hastings was a terrible place. They stayed in their grasslands in Battle.

In a field there, on October 14, 1066, Guillaume's army met up with Harold's army, which was really tired from having marched all the way from southern Scotland so they could fight. That's like 500 miles in two weeks. On foot. The battle in Battle (not yet called Battle) was hard-fought and for awhile it looked bad in Battle for Guillaume until late that day someone shot Harold right through the eye with an arrow and he fell dead. Unfortunately for Harold's mother and the perpetuation of her genes, two of Harold's brothers were also killed, the English army fled before the French and the battle was over. The King of England was dead after only a couple of months on the throne, mostly spent fighting. Kings were tough back then. Not like Prince Charles, who is a complete wuss in every way. His nose is enormous.

But Guillaume was French and the English were having none of that as their King (OK he was really a Norman, which back then was different, but it's part of France now and it was kind of part of France then, so let's not quibble over details). Again they chose someone else to rule. Guillaume was really mad. He drove his army north to London and on Christmas Day 1066 set things right by promising not to destroy everything if he was crowned King of England that very day. That was the real day he became King but most people thought the big event had occurred back in September in that unnamed field down south.

Since the two armies had fought in a place with no name, the people decided to call it after the town closest to where the battle had occurred, and the name "The Battle of Hastings" stuck. 940 years later we still call it that. And since in England they speak English - although back then it was something else a lot closer to German - people started calling Guillaume Le Conquerant by his English name: William the Conqueror. Before that England had been conquered every few hundred years by this foreign invader or that, but after William showed up they were never conquered again. And by 1600 England was probably the most powerful country in the world.

A few years after 1066 a man named Odo, who was the Bishop of Bayeux back in Normandy (and William's half-brother), decided he wanted to commemorate the Battle of Hastings in print. Perhaps he wanted to distract people from his dumb name. He commissioned a bunch of ladies to weave a tapestry in needlework more than 250 feet long, telling the story of how his brother conquered England. They did an excellent job, and in fact created what may now be the most priceless document in the English-speaking world. After they finished it (most likely in 1077), for the next 300+ years it was displayed every year in the apse of the cathedral at Bayeux, on the day appointed for the Feast of the Relics.

But then one year someone just forgot to do his job and for the next 200 years or so the tapestry was stored in the basement of the cathedral, until in the late 17th century someone remembered it was down there and when they pulled it out everyone looked at it and was like, "Hey, this tells the story of one of the most important events in world history." Since then it's been held in pretty high regard. You can see it displayed in Bayeux if you want, or you can look it up on Wikipedia. At least the text on Wikipedia is in English. In Bayeux it's not.

The reason I tell you this story is because - if you're an American - it's why you are who you are. More than five hundred years after William the Conqueror died, some religious nuts living in Holland (English people) got sick of Dutch weather and presumably wooden shoes, which don't hold in heat very well, and decided to find a better place to live. I won't go into detail about why they were living in Holland but there was a good reason. They sailed on a ship called the Mayflower and, in 1620, landed on a marshy patch of ground not too far from present-day Boston. They were happy then because, even though they were dying of very complicated diseases, like the common cold and in-grown toenails, they were free to execute anyone they wanted for not having enough faith in their god, and they certainly did that. Plus they got rid of all those witches that started running around.

Anyway, shortly after they landed they ate some corn and turkey with the Massachusetts Indians and called it Thanksgiving. A hundred years later George Washington told his dad about chopping down his cherry tree and someone said, "If he's going to tell the truth about that then we're going to make him General of the Continental Army," and after that he went and fought the Redcoats and we were the big winners and everyone started to immigrate here and now we're building walls to keep Mexicans out at a cost of literally billions of dollars a year because American conservative and Christian Right politicians are quite possibly retarded and the media lets them get away with their racist rhetoric about people that just want to build a better life. Just let the Mexicans come here. They're good people and they work hard. Walls don't work. Didn't the Germans teach us that?

But back to the Motherland one more time: Once William took over, the people in England adopted a lot of his words really quickly. In fact, by 1350 they had adopted almost 10,000 French words and in 2007 about 7500 of them are still in use. Words like beef, competition, force, machine, sex, police and a million others (ok only 7493 others). The English were proud people I guess (still are), so they stuck with their Germanic grammar, but they borrowed a whole buttload of French words. Over time most of the definitions of these shared French and English words have stayed the same, although a few have diverged in very odd ways. The ones that have diverged are called "False Friends." Read below, from Wikipedia:

Many French words are intelligible to an English speaker (though pronunciations are often quite different) because English absorbed a large vocabulary from Norman and French after the Norman Conquest and directly from French in subsequent centuries. As a result, a large portion of English vocabulary is derived from French, with some minor spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings, etc.), as well as occasional divergences in meaning, in so-called "faux amis", or false friends.

These "false friends" can be very distracting. Here's what I mean:
  • The word "adore" is not a false friend. In French it means exactly what it does in English, only the French use the word all the time and for a broader array of concepts, while in the US 'adore' is not used very often, and men (in my experience) almost never say it. It's just not very masculine.
  • "Four", on the other hand, is a false friend. This word actually means "oven" in French. My knowledge of French isn't good enough that I understand where that comes from.
  • Another false friend is the word "car". I see this word printed all the time when I watch TV with subtitles, and I still don't know what it means. It's a conjugation of some verb but I haven't spent the time to figure it out yet. But it's very distracting to see it on TV: I'm watching a show, doing my best to follow along and all of a sudden the word "car" pops up. My mind can't help but think about automobiles and I get distracted and, in an instant, I'm lost. I think this is what is meant by "false friends. They make you think you know them but you really don't. I've had some friends like that.
But there aren't nearly as many false friends as there are real ones, so the similarities between French and English vocabulary are many. Now I understand why we go to the Dentist, which thing I never before understood. Because in French, teeth are "dents" and dentist is "dentist." Going to the Dentist to fix your dents makes a lot more sense than going to the Dentist to fix your teeth. There are a million of those, and learning French so far has really, honestly helped me better understand my own language and why I say some of the things I do. Although I'll probably still never understand some of the things I say when the water pump goes out in this house for like the five thousandth time.

Hence we come to free rice. There is a new website out, called www.freerice.com, which has a vocabulary game on it. For every word you get correct the UN donates ten grains of rice to hungry people around the world. Of course the site is really just a ruse to raise awareness of certain problems in underdeveloped countries, but the game is really fun, the site really is run by the UN, and they really do donate rice. Every time you get a word correct the database gives you a new word more difficult than the last, until which point you get words that are so difficult that not even Albert Einstein would know them (although since Einstein was German he gets a pass for not knowing all the English words). Then you miss a word and your score drops and they give you an easier word. The highest score you can get is a 50, although most people probably hover in the mid-30's.

But if you want a better score, learn Latin. Or, since Latin no longer exists, learn French. It will make a huge impact on your score. It seems half the words they give have a Latin or French root so - since the game is multiple choice - knowing a little French makes it easier to figure out certain words, even if you've never seen that word. Because, remember, English is a Germanic language that uses a ton of French words. So knowing Latin/French roots helps a lot. It perhaps gets me a higher score than you're ever going to get, so I can feel smarter than you. Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. But I'll feel the way I'll feel and what are you going to do about it? Go play the game now and post your score in the comments section of this post. And no cheating. Seriously, no cheating.

And after you you get a high score, thank the Romans for their ambition. Or the Danes. Or William the Conqueror. A lot of the words in that brilliant little head of yours came from them.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Courtney said...

Does this game ever end? After about 1300 grains of rice and four kids begging for breakfast, I gave up - I ended the game at 37 - I think I peaked at 40 and bottomed out at 34. When are you going to post both of your scores?

This game would be good SAT prep if we were in high school again.

24.11.07  
Blogger Tiffani said...

Is it sad that the first time I comment on your blog is to share my score of 42? That game is addictive! Sure miss you guys!

25.11.07  
Blogger hughes family said...

Well, I absolutely despise the UN, but the game sounded fun, and it was addicting. Hopefully my grains of rice really feed someone. I think my highest was 40, but I'm going to play again since I played late last night and my brain was fried after a solid 14 hours of non-stop 'fun' with 4 kids.

27.11.07  
Blogger Dave said...

The game goes on forever until you decide you've had enough. The third or fourth time playing I bottomed out at 36 but peaked at 44. I have thrown down the gauntlet.

27.11.07  

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