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The Routes of English - BBC Radio 4
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Lady on the phone - you tell us You Told Us! page 2


What is the origin of the word answer? Why is there a "w" in the spelling?
Scott Mariash

Scott, your enquiry left me guessing. So I looked up the etymology of "Answer" in the OED online and this is what it says:
answer, n.
[OE. andswaru, cogn. with OS. antswôr, OFris. (ontswer) ondser, ON. andsvar, annsvar, Dan. and Sw. ansvar, OTeut. *andswarâ-; f. and- against, in reply + *swarâ- affirmation, swearing, f. OTeut. *swarjan, Goth. swaran, OE. sw rian to affirm, swear. The original meaning was thus a solemn affirmation made to rebut a charge.] So it's clear that the "w" comes in from the root "swarjan" to swear - so answer and swear share a common source. It's just that the "w" is now silent. I can't help you with when that happened, but many Elizabethan pronunciations were much more literal than now - which is why they were spelled that way ...
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

In the first series, Melvyn Bragg quoted a poem about the difficulties of English language. Can you tell me a source for this poem as the source suggested to me is now out of print?
Pat Guy

The poem we used was entitled 'Why English is so Hard' and is from an anthology by Raymond Wilson called 'Nine O'Clock Bell: Poems About School'. We haven't got the publisher’s name to hand, but are endeavouring to find out. We assume from the problems we have had in tracking it down that it is out of print.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

Hello. I live in the United States and I was wondering why Webster changed the spelling of American words? I rather like spelling colour over color. It seems more ... well, colourful. I'd also like to know why our language isn't spelled phonetically like many other languages.
Pat Guy

I think I know the answer, but to be really sure, check out David Crystal's brilliant Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language (Cambridge University Press). Our bible. The spelling reform was an attempt to simplify and make more like the pronunciation and eliminate unnecessary letters. Bernard Shaw was also keen. Do you know his little joke? How do you pronounce GHOTI?

Answer: "fish" Gh as in "enough", o as in "women" and ti as in "attention". Crazy spelling, British English - but we love it too. This place is in Norfolk, England: HAPPISBURGH - pronounced??????? HAZE - BURRUH.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

In Braveheart, what language did Lowland Scots people speak at that time? And what language did the Scottish lords really speak?
Lawrie Douglas

French was probably the language the lords would have used among themselves. But it's safe to say that, by Wallace's time, most of them would have had full fluency in Gaelic, Scots or both. They would have used the appropriate native language in speaking to their followers and tenants.

The northern dialect of Anglo-Saxon was later to develop into the Lowland Scots tongue - though nobody had as yet thought of naming it Scots. Gaelic was spoken over a far wider area than today - right down the west coast and into Galloway, and over the whole Highland massif. Wallace, who was born in Renfrewshire, would have had Gaelic as his mother tongue and (most probably) Scots as a learned language.
Derrick McClure, University of Aberdeen

I'd like to know how much English has been expanded by Navy sayings and how much language comes from the Services? On a different note, I'd also like to know how much our intonation is changing. I note that a lot of young people are using a rising intonation. Changes in intonation and accent fascinate me - watch a pre-war British film to see what I mean!
Su Martin

The intonation you refer to is called 'upspeak' and research shows it is prevalent particularly among young women. Australian soaps have been cited as an influence, though the rising intonation has long been a feature of certain regional British Englishes, notably Belfast and Bristol.

If you want facts and figures on Services terms in the English language, contact Oxford Word and Language Service, OUP, Walton St, Oxford, OX2 6AB - a free service.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer


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