How We'd Talk

When our weeping winter skies and saturated soil seem set to send you stark-staring mad, comfort yourself with the thought that we could instead be straining against the perpetual gale in what deserves to be our spiritual sister city: Port-aux-Français in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands.

Ask most people to identify where they would be if unexpectedly transported to far side of the earth and they will likely say China or maybe Australia. But in fact, if you poke a really long pencil straight down through the center of the planet from our home on Washington's outer coast, it comes out in "no man's water" between the Indian and Great Southern oceans. (An easy-to-use program at antipodr.com allows you to find the polar opposite of any point on earth.)

Desolate and quite useless

The nearest landfall is a 250-mile-long paddle to the west, Ile de l'Est in the Crozet Islands, while 500 miles to the southeast is the transcendent Kerguelen archipelago, described in one article as "desolate and quite useless" and discovered by a Breton-French navigator of the same name in 1772. It's a substantial place — 2,800 square miles — larger than Clatsop and Pacific counties put together. Its sole settlement, Port-aux-Français, hosts a summer population of about 120 scientists and technicians, who study local wildlife and track satellites.

It sounds like home: "The climate is raw and chilly with frequent high winds, but not severely cold throughout the year ..."

Although Port Alfred, population 60 in the Crozets, will be a little closer when our giant earth-boring machine pops up through the seafloor, the Kerguelens look like a place where armies of faeries may still be skirmishing in secret among the blue glaciers, forsaken 6,000-foot peaks and whaler-planted cabbage patches. Thirty years ago I would have felt hope-bound to set foot there in person; now my mind's footprints will have to do.

There's even a tavern where we can order a glass of Bordeaux, though doing so will mean having to speak French. A lot of we Americans seem to imagine our teeth will explode in protest if we utter a word in a foreign language, so this may quash any local re-settlement plans for the Kerguelens.

Plain talking

We're not entirely alone in this crotchety prejudice. Dr. Stuart Lee, whose engaging Oxford University lectures on Old English are available online, says partly in jest that we should "get back to plain talking, to ditch all these stupid words the French gave us."

It will come as a surprise to many to learn that we already speak a lot of French. The Norman overlords who took over England starting in 1066 were descended from Viking thugs who had earlier settled in northern France and gradually adopted the local language. (Norman is short for North-men or Norsemen.) In the following two or three centuries, many French words wiggled into our language. It had been entirely dominated by Anglo-Saxon dialects, now known as Old English, brought over by Britain's previous set of invaders.

Studying Old English is helped by its distant cousin still being a living language in parts of the Netherlands and Germany bordering the North Sea — the area called Friesland. Frisian and English can look surprisingly alike: Ik tink dat it hijr better foar him is = I think that it is better for him here. To this day, Dutch and English are considered similar enough to make them relatively easy for speakers of one to learn the other.

A playful thought-exercise written last year by David Cowley imagines "How We'd Talk If the English had Won in 1066." Cowley imagines our speech would be sharper and fresher without the fluffiness and frills of French and Latin loan words. I really like how modern headlines, signs and phrases might sound in "new" Old English:

• I underget what's going on

• Leaders said to be sorrowless over cuts

• Welcome to a laughterful evening of glee

• Wild weather brought seaupward onto the shore

• An unstill mind in a mood of wishedness

• Lustfulness for gold fed by these old-overseaish tales

• He's into idlebliss

For we who work with words, all this is like unearthing a lost goldhoard, or sighting a savage new horizon after clawing our way clear through the fiery heart of the world.

Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.

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