As at this stage there was not a generally accepted spelling system, confusion increased as the pronunciation of words slowly changed. In some cases there was a clear discrepancy between the written and the spoken word, as certain letters inserted in it were not pronounced, as in ‘debt’ /det/ – in this case it is due to its Latin etymology, debitum, dubitare -or ‘gh’ in ‘light’. Many scholars thought that English spelling was arbitrary, as its written form even varied from one writer to another. Sir John Cheke, for instance, doubled long vowels; ‘taak, haat, maad, mijn, thijn’ = ‘take, hate, made, mine, thine’. Richard Stanyhurst wrote ‘thee’ for ‘the’, ‘too’ for ‘to’, ‘mee’, ‘neere’, etc. Also it is not clear to which extent is the writing indebted to the writer or to the printer, since most printers took advantage of the variability of English spelling to ‘justify’ a line.

Even in excerpts written by just one author we can come across different spellings for the same word, as in the case of the pamphlets written by Greene, where we find ‘coney’, ‘cony’, ‘conny’, ‘conye’, ‘conie’, ‘connie’, ‘coni’, ‘cuny’, ‘cunny’ and cunnie’.

As a result, there were several attempts to draw up rules;

  • in 1568, Thomas Smith increases the alphabet to 34 letters and marked the long vowels in his work “Dialogue concerning the correct and emended writing of the English language”.

  • In 1569 and 1570, John Hart in his works “An Orthographie” and “A method or comfortable beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English”, he makes special characters for -dh, -sh and -th.


  • In 1580 there is an attempt at establishing a phonetic reform devised by William Bullokar in his “Booke at large for the amendment of orthographie for English speech”, in which he profits by mistakes made by Smith and Hart in the aforementioned works and invents few special characters but introduces the use of accents, apostrophes and hooks above and below the letters.

  • Later, in 1634, Charles Butler substitutes an inverted apostrophe for final e’s and a special character for -th, with scarce success in his work “The English grammar, or the institution of letters, syllables and woords in the English tung”.

  • Mulcaster clearly perceives all of the previous attempts as a waste in his work “Elemmentarie”, the most important treatise on English spelling in the 16th century and his virtue is moderation, being willing to compromise between the ideal and the practical. If the differences between one sound and another were too subtle, it was inevitable to use one letter for different sounds, which for him was not worse than using the same word in different senses. Also, since pronunciation changes constantly, he could not adhere to the proposals by the phonetic reformers. For him, popular approval was the final authority. Thus, he would get rid of superfluous letters (putt, grubb, ledd), would not omit necessary ones (fetch, catch), allowed double consonants only when they belong to separate syllables (wit.ting) and ended words in -ss as -sse (glasse), otherwise final -e indicating long preceding vowels (made-mad, stripe-strip) among other suggestions. He wrote “General Table”, a book with the recommended spelling for 7,000 words.

  • Ben Jonson drew from Mulcaster -as he acknowledged in the preface of his “Dictionary” in 1755, and finally established a solid basis for modern English spelling by 1650.

England before the English language I

There were a variety of cultures, each with its own language. The Stone Age lasted in England until 2,000 BC, although some stone weapons were still used at the Battle of Hastings. Eventually they gave way to bronze implements and these were finally displaced by iron in 500-600 BC.

There are no data about the language used in the Paleolithic era. The first people in England whose language we have knowledge about are the Celts. Then Latin, introduced when Britain was a province of the Roman Empire, was spoken extensively for 4 centuries.


Fig.: Implements found in Huntingdonshire.

In the summer of 55BC, julius Caesar invades England to discourage the Celts from coming from Britain through the channel to assist the Celts in Gaul. The expedition was an utter disaster. Finally, the Roman Conquest took place in AD 43, conducted by Emperor Claudius, who sent an army of 40,000 to Britain and subjugated it in 3 years. The Celt uprising lead by Boudica in AD 61 did not deter them, and the Northern frontier advanced to Solway-Tyne, where they built a stone wall.

The Romans built highways, roads, military and civil centers, houses, baths, temples, theatres, heating and water supply systems, created beautiful mosaics and painted stucco, brought their own fashion in dresses and ornaments, and made pottery, glassware and other utensils.  The Romanization was cut short in the 5th century.


Fig.: Roman pottery.

There is evidence of the use of Latin in inscriptions. It did not replace Celtic (as it did in Gaul) though. The use of Latin declined after the legions withdrew in 410.

In 449 there is another invasion, this time by Germanic tribes. For 100 years, bands from Denmark and the Low Countries  invaded the South and East of the island. Jutes and Angles (Denmark), Frisians and Saxons (Germany) came in waves through the years and established themselves in different sites. The Picts and Scots, natives in the islands had remained unconquered and kept their own culture throughout the Romanization. The Celts depended on Roman arms when they withdrew from the island, and reached an agreement with the Jutes in order to lead the Picts and Scots out.


The Jutes settled in Kent, the Saxons in the South coast, Sussex, then Wessex too, Middlesex and North of the Thames, and the Angles at the North of the Humber.

The Celts were driven to the West (Wells, Cornwall) and the Roman towns were burned to the ground. It’s the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon civilization. Society is organized in clans and families and class distinctions are established: Eorls -hereditary aristocracy- and Ceorls -simple freemen-. They also established local assemblies called Moots, and administered justice through a system of fines, the Wergild, which varied according to the crime and the rank of the injured party.

The Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy is born:

Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Sussex, Essex, and Wessex.





The People of the Abyss

The People of the Abyss (1903) is n account of the life conditions of the poor in the East End of London collected during his first hand experience staying in workhouses and sleeping in the street as part of his personal exploration of the under-world. He carried out his experiment at a time of affluence, in 1902, but during which 500,000 people were estimated to live in the described conditions: “The starvation and lack of shelter encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery, which is never wiped out, even in periods of great prosperity”, he asserted. In January 1903, there was no space left in the workhouses and the means were exhausted.

casual ward

He visits Johnny Upright’s home in order to have a place where he could receive his mail and, work on his notes, and get a cold treatment as he does so in his shabby clothes, until he speaks to Mrs. Upright. He then starts looking for a room, and learns that even the largest families in this stratum of society took just a room and even took lodgers in. He´s offered a room with two other lodgers and exchanges impressions with a lower class youth: “From the moment of his birth , all the forces of his environment had tended to harden him, and he viewed his wretched, inevitable future with a callousness and unconcern I could not shake”, and learn about the aged poor, a 71% of the population of London, through a newspaper article, how they age alone and die of self-neglect, 450,000 a day. “The Abyss seems to exude a stupefying atmosphere of torpor, which wraps about them and deadens them (…) the full belly and the evening pipe is all they demand, or dream of demanding, from existence”. The environmental conditions they live submerged in are poisonous, as pollution forms solid deposits on every surface.

Jack London decides to see things for himself and not merely to be informed by other people´s theoretical work on the subject of poverty, such as Engels’ or Jacob Riis’s, so that he could see the human factor: “how they live, why are they living, what for”. He finds that there was a slum at a five minute walk from any point in London, but the cabbies refused to drive to the East End, which was a neverending slum packed with a “crowd of shabby white people” belonging to a new different race of “short, beer-sodden, wretched” individuals. He stops by an old-clothes shop and the shop owner thought he was a high-class American criminal. He arrays himself in the shabby clothes and sews one gold sovereign in the armpit just in case he encounters difficulties. He then experiences the different in status effected by his clothes and notices that “all servility – towards him- vanished from the demeanour” and he was called ‘mate’ instead of ‘sir’ or ‘guv`nor’, escaping “the pestilence of tipping and encountered mean on a basis of equality (…) I had to be more lively in avoiding vehicles. Life had cheapened in direct ratio to my clothes”. Lower classes “talked as natural men should without the least idea of getting anything out of me”. The fear of the mob vanished completely as London became –in appearance- one of them.

East End 1903

He gets immersed in the life of the poor and dejected population of the East End were men in one room working for 15 hours a day encaged in a tiny room, with their teeth worn down by the friction of the metallic brads used in their trade –shoe-making -. He witnesses the life of those dying of consumption, those who can only afford to have rotten meat once a week, and who can only wait patiently for death; cramped rooms full of undernourished infants. And he lives with those who can not even afford lodging and try to sleep in the Spitalfields Garden, a surface with patches of grass here and there and a sharp-spiked iron fencing to deter them from entering its enclosed space. Others, in search of a roof, sleep in the benches within Christ´s Church; people covered in rags and filth, open sores and bruises, women who would sell themselves for a loaf of bread. He experiences life in the casual ward and the workhouses. “The Abyss is a huge man-killing machine”.


Nunca seremos los mismos

Inmigración. Encendemos la tele y ahí está. Nos repantingamos en nuestros sofás y vemos el cuerpecito sin vida de un bebé en la playa. Vemos el camión frigorífico aparcado a la orilla de una autopista, lleno de cadáveres, a la reportera húngara dando patadas a hombres, mujeres e incluso a niños. Vemos a las angustiadas familias caladas hasta los huesos bajo la lluvia, con sus hijos llorando a su lado, envueltos en bolsas de basura para evitar congelarse en la calle, ya que las autoridades les niegan un techo bajo el que cobijarse. Vemos a cincuenta personas en una lancha de goma cruzando el estrecho que separa África y Europa. Vemos las playas de Lampedusa, repletas de cuerpos abandonados allí por la marea, los cadáveres de aquellos que un día invirtieron todo cuanto tenían para comprar un billete a ninguna parte. Después, salimos a la calle y oímos: “ por qué no se quedan en su país”, “y eso qué tiene que ver conmigo”, “no me interesa”. Qué poca memoria tenemos…

BTS14491  guera civil 7

Foto 1: Españoles en un campo de concentración francés.

Foto 2: Inmigrantes “ilegalesespañoles capturados en Venezuela.

Es muy saludable ejercitar la memoria y la empatía, y eso es lo que hago, de mano del escritor González de la Cuesta.


“Nunca seremos los mismos” cuenta la historia de varios personajes anónimos inolvidables como Manuel, Lola, Marga y Rodrigo, y la de otros no tan anónimos, como el afamado y querido poeta Antonio Machado y el presidente de la República, Manuel Azaña. Con “Nunca seremos los mismos” asistimos a los últimos días de Machado en Collioure, desmoralizado, roto. Vemos como la guerra convierte a España en un sitio peligroso para aquellos que formaron parte del bando perdedor y que fueron forzados al exilio para poder sobrevivir. Huyeron sólo para encontrarse con una Europa igualmente fragmentada, a punto de entrar en la Segunda Guerra Mundial. Y fueron rechazados y despreciados de igual manera por el gobierno francés, que no les dio una dulce bienvenida. Esta novela nos hace bajar de nuestra torre de marfil construida con el olvido y nos recuerda lo que se siente:

huían de su derrota, de la muerte que se cernía como una sombra sobre ellos como una sombra (…) y eso (…) les hacía sentirse como una piltrafa de la Historia. Porque ellos eran personas normales, profesionales que amaban su país, su familia y sus amigos (…)”

nada les produce tanta desolación como la contemplación (…) de miles de personas pugnando por atravesar la frontera (…) las autoridades francesas no están poniendo mucho de su parte por aliviar el sufrimiento de esas personas que sólo quieren un lugar donde vivir y estar seguros. Es más, parecen dispuestos a impedir la entrada masiva de españoles a su país (…) a golpe de culata, empujones, insultos (…)”.

Una vez penetras en el mundo de la diáspora, nada volverá a ser lo mismo. Tú nunca volverás a ser el mismo. Dejas atrás tu país e intentas adaptarte a uno nuevo, donde tu cultura y tu identidad son cuestionadas a cada paso, y cuanto más te adaptas -para poder sobrevivir-, más te separas de tu hogar. Esto es aún más agudo en el caso del exilio motivado por un conflicto bélico. Tú cambias, pero tu país lo hace de una forma drástica, dramática, sin vuelta atrás.

Estas experiencias son vividas por Manuel, Rodrigo y Marga. Dejan su país para no volver, porque aquel país que conocían y amaban ha desaparecido para siempre. Junto a ellos sentimos la aguda punzada de dolor por tan inmensa pérdida, su lucha denodada por sobrevivir y su gran determinación. En su periplo se enfrentan no sólo al rechazo experimentado en Francia, sino que en su camino lleno de dignidad e iniciativa, también hay lugar para la solidaridad y el apoyo transnacional proveniente de ciudadanos anónimos que cobrarán un gran significado en sus vidas: Viveka, Mss.Cameron, Pilar… La crueldad y la indiferencia que muestran las autoridades de los países por los que pasan contrasta con la actitud de las personas de a pie, como suele suceder siempre.

Las ciudades por las que van pasando están descritas a la perfección, y uno puede imaginarse en ellas, a finales de la década de los años 30 y principio de los 40, en una Europa convulsa y en Estados Unidos durante el ataque a Pearl Harbour. Prosiguen, inasequibles al desaliento, con sus vidas, pero algo se ha roto en su interior y sufren la angustia de quien ha sido arrancado de raíz de su hogar y expuesto a la incertidumbre de una vida nueva.
rubber boat

Sí, hemos estado en la misma lancha de goma, compartiendo el mismo espíritu que conduce a todos aquellos que huyen de la atrocidad. Y no hace tanto tiempo de aquello. De la huída de un país herido de muerte, de la violación sistemática de los derechos humanos básicos, del hambre y de la muerte, de un conflicto fratricida. Éramos ellos. Y nuestras cunetas dan buena cuenta de ello, aún repletas de cadáveres de aquellos que -como Lola- no pudieron cruzar la frontera y fueron ejecutados y enterrados ahí mismo, en fosas comunes. Están por toda España. Justo ahí, bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques, en los prados. Y, como dice esa famosa frase de Jorge Santayana, «Aquellos que no recuerdan el pasado están condenados a repetirlo». Es bueno no olvidar. Recordemos.

Día de difuntos de 2015, en recuerdo de todos aquellos que continúan bajo el asfalto, junto al muro, en los bosques y en los prados.

The Fagus Line

Beech (Fagus Sylvatica Lynnaeus) is a species of beautiful, deciduous tree, with a smooth, greyish bark, native to certain parts of Europe -with a warmer climate-, Asia and North America. Its leaves are loosely toothed and hairy in spring, and the tree bears both male and female flowers on the same specimen; the small ones are unisexual, the female flowers bloom in pairs, and the male ones are anemophilous aments (cylindrical clusters of very tiny flowers). Flowers are produced in spring, once the leaves have already appeared. Its fruits (beechnuts) are edible and have a high tannin content. In the autumn, if you are trekking in the forest, it is easy to see the brown dried beechnuts on the ground. We call this tree haya in Spain, and the fruits are known as hayucos.

The name of the tree (Latin fagus) is of Indo-European origin, and played an important role in early debates on the geographical origins of the Indo-European people. And that is the aspect of beech trees that interests me today.

Fagus Sylvatica Lynnaeus

(Photo of my own three little Fagus Sylvatica splitting my garden in two areas 🙂 )

Within Europe, the common beech is restricted to central Europe, and it is not native east of Poland and Ukraine. The two main branches of Indo-European fall in either side of the line drawn by the imaginary line from Scandinavia to Greece -the Fagus line-, which splits Europe in two. Those two branches are known as the Centum group -the name comes from the word for “one hundred” in Latin- and the Satem group -from “one hundred” in Avestan-. The Centum group, West of the Fagus line, comprises Hellenic -although Greek φηγός, from the same root, was transferred to the oak tree (e.g. Odyssey & Iliad) as a result of the absence of beech trees in Greece– Italic, Germanic and Celtic. The Satem group comprises Indian, Iranian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic and Albanian.

The Fagus line theory depends on the existence of beech trees in the area as evidence by the vocabulary. For instance, in the Centum area, there are no ancient work for elephant, camel, lion, tiger or bamboo, but there are terms for freezing cold, oak, beech, pine, birch, willow, bear, wolf, otter, beaver, polecat and bee.

There is an exception though, Tocharian -belonging to the Centum group, as fragmentary texts have been found in West China. Nomads? Immigrants? A flawed theory?


(Tocharian writing, so beautiful!)

Colonized brains: ignorance and the victor’s version of history

A positive aspect of the social networks is the fact that we take a glimpse into other cultures and places throughout the world and talk to people with a different background. It is indeed very enriching, and it provokes some awkward situations as well! For instance, a young fellow from India, Vivek Singh, asked me about the history of his country before the East India Company poked its nose in there. It made me feel embarrassed to acknowledge my ignorance, as I explained to him how in the western countries – as stated by Walter Benjamin: “History is told by the victors”- we are only taught history when/only as much as it involves western people, and western versions of it only. I feel we have a huge gap in our knowledge, no wonder we may behave as hillbillies when we encounter cultures and behaviours different to ours.

Gramsci Foucault

I resorted to Ravi Kumar (, who sent me some bibliography on colonial and post-colonial contexts in translation. I tried to fill the gaps by researching a bit and trying to reflect in order to answer Vivek Singh’s question: why were the colonial incursions in America and India so different?

We could say that time was an important factor, as more than one century separates both invasions. The way they happen was also particular to each of them; the Spaniards assumed to role of “gods” and took over, plundering, raping and erasing entire cultures with their microbes and swords alike. The British disguised it as commercial intentions only, while they publicised it as a “christianising enterprise” in their homeland. Their intentions were not as bare faced as that of the Spaniards’ because Indian society was very much developed, organized and sophisticated already, so they could not get away so easily.


They landed at Surat in 1612 with the permission of prince Khurram, who allowed them to trade there. A hundred years after that, in 1712, empires within India crumble, there are uprisings and invasions from Persia and Afghanistan. The East India Company take advantage of the invasions effected by other countries and the vacuum of power by the death of Aurangzeb (1707) to impose their own idea of an empire, displaying their own private army and plan to take direct control over the land in order to increase their profits. In the battle of Plassey (1757) they fight against the forces of the Nawab Surajudduallah of Bengal, backed by France -out of their own self-interest, I guess-. The Indian side fails, due to Surajudduallah’s General Mir Jafar’s treachery, who was made the new ruler of Bengal by the British as a reward for betraying his own fellow citizens -that sounds familiar throughout history, doesn’t it?-.

The Indians started to build alliances in order to better fight the British. In 1764, Mughal emperor Shah Allam II allied with Mir Qasim -Mir Jaffar’s son, who had turned against the British rule- and Shujaudduallah -ruler of Awadh- to expel the Brits. It results in another failure, in the battle of Buxar (1764); they were allowed to rule their areas but forced to acknowledge the East India Company as administrator.

The company started becoming a political force and its ambitions to gain control of India started to be obvious. For the next year they exerted their power through a combination of diplomacy and sheer force. By 1840 India was under its rule. The company exploited Indian resources, started introducing Christianity -which they were advised not to do during the first stages of their sojourn-, and developed an increasingly aloof, arrogant and racist attitude. They also introduced their language, a fact which is one of the basic and most common weapons used by colonialism. Indian craftsmen became ruined, as the Europeans living in India introduced cheaper products from British factories -a phenomenon which is also familiar nowadays, but the other way round, impulsed as well by the Europeans’ outsourcing-. The British established a kind of “apartheid” which resulted in the higher rank posts being reserved for their own kind. They also introduced the Doctrine of Lapse, allowing themselves to annex any land whose ruler died or which did not have a male heir -of course they practised gender apartheid as well-. India became an important site to exploit for Britain, thus Queen Victoria became the official ruler.

The Origin of the English Language II

As you will remember from my previous article on the origin of English, it is a close relative of German, even if Present day English does not bear much resemblance to its “cousin”. We must take into consideration that although both languages had a great part of their vocabulary in common to begin with, in the case of English, only 85% of it survived the Norman invasion – above all basic vocabulary -. Now, let’s see some basic similarities.


We can find several similarities in lexicon, such as the existence of some words in Present day English and German whose origin can be traced right back to Old English:

OE sprecan / PdG sprechen / PdE speak

OE nū / PdG nur / PdE  now  

OE cū / PdG Kuh / PdE cow 

OE cyning / PrG König/ PdE king

and others whose resemblance to Modern German is patent, while the equivalent terms in Present day English are no longer their descendants:

OE burg / PdG Burg (castle) / PdE fortress

OE beame / PdG Baum / PdE tree

OE þū / PdG du / PdE you

OE oððer / PdG oder / PdE or

OE scīene / PdG schön / PdE beautiful

OE niman / PdG nehmen / PdE take

another similarity which links Old English to Present day German is the prevalence of self-explained compounds:

hydrogen – Wasserstoff (water-stuff), telephone – Fernsprecher (far speaker)

lēohtfæt – lamp-lēoht (lēoht = light, fœt = vessel)

fiellesēocnes – epilepsy (falling sickness)

If we look at its grammar, Old English resembles German more than it does Present day English:  nouns and adjectives have four cases, adjectives have three separate forms, one for each gender, and verb inflection is less elaborate than that in Latin but yet it has distinct endings for person, number, tense and mood, and we can also find a remarkable resemblance since we start studying verb conjugation:

infinitive – bīdan(remain) / present simple, second person singular – bītst, third person singular – bīt(t)

Old English, a synthetic language just like Modern German, contrasts in the most striking manner with Present day English due to the complete absence of inflections in the latter, where this kind of complexity is unnecessary, as it conveys meaning – as an analytic language – through the placing of the words alone, without resorting on inflectional morphemes. As a Germanic language, Old English developed a twofold declension; a strong declension which is used with nouns when they are accompanied by a definite article or similar (demonstrative, possessive pronoun), and a weak declension, used when the noun is preceded by such determinants, which has remained in use in Present day German, whereas in Present day English adjectives bear no inflections at all.

gōd cnæpling- gut Junge

sē gōda cnæpling-der gute Junge