Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

English Language Day 2014: Let the Bells ring out.

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Today is English Language Day.

English Language Day was inaugurated by The English Project in 2009 as a way of celebrating this quirky and wonderful language of ours. As their site says, the Project ‘promotes awareness and understanding of the unfolding global story of the English language in all its varieties’.

Why today?

Because of a nice little historical anecdote. It was on 13 October 1362 that the English Parliament was opened for the first time by a speech in English.

A language layer cake?

layer_cake Where does English come from? One way to think of English is as a layer cake. The bottom layer, which gives us many of our most basic everyday words, is Old-English, also known as Anglo-Saxon (1). On top of that are luscious thick layers of French, Latin, and Greek words, and then the icing on the cake is made up of words borrowed from dozens and dozens of other languages, from Welsh (corgi) to Chinese (kowtow), and Inuit (anorak) to Hawaiian (wiki-).

The Latin layer.

(Or stratum, to use a Latin word.)
Latin has given us much of our abstract and literary vocabulary. As today is Sunday, and the bells of York Minster have been tolling clangorously in the background as I blog, I want to look at one that could hardly be more literary: tintinnabulation. Not a word you’ll come across every day, admittedly, but an interesting one all the same.

It means, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it: “A ringing of a bell or bells, bell-ringing; the sound or music so produced”.york-bells-2

It is a combination of the Latin tintinnābulum “tinkling bell” and the suffix -ation (which is itself from Latin). Tintinnābulum sounds rather like what it means (“tinkling bell”): in other words, it is onomatopoeic (a Greek word). Its onomatopoeia (note the difficult -oeia spelling) is not surprising, since it in turn comes from the Latin tintinnāre (“to ring, jingle”), which is what is called a “reduplication” (2) of tinnīre, the Latin verb also meaning to ring (from which comes the name of the medical condition tinnitus.)

Who first used the word?

edgar_allan_poe_by_crisvector-d3jswe4
According to the OED, the word first appeared in print in Poe’s poem The Bells, which is about as onomatopoeic or echoic as it gets, with its almost manic repetitions of “inkle” and “el” sounds, and of the long “i” sound of icy, night, etc.

The Bells!

Hear the sledges with the bells –
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

The words does not, for obvious reasons, get too many outings. However, it was a key notion for “Holy Minimalist” composer Arvo Pärt at a certain stage of his musical development which gave birth to pieces such as Für Alina and the hypnotically serene Spiegel im Spiegel.

‘Tintinnabulation,’ the composer explains,’is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work…Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played…I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.’

(1)The only words in that paragraph not from Old English are: cake (Scandinavian), basic (ultimately Latin), luscious (probably from delicious, therefore French, as are language and dozen).
(2) Reduplication is a repetition of (a syllable or other linguistic element) exactly or with a slight change. English is full of these reduplications, e.g. hocus-pocus, hurly-burly, pitter-patter, see-saw, willy-nilly).

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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