This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on the origin of the word “sabotage”.
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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. I am your host, Stephen Greene, and today we are going back in time.
This is the first in a new series I am hoping to record about the history of English. In previous episodes, I talked about how English came from the German family of languages and was affected by the French-speaking Normans to create modern English.
In this new series, I hope to examine what happened before German or French or Latin existed. Where did they come from originally?
All of that, after this.
Before we start, I’d like to remind you of my site EnglishwithStephen.com. On the site, you can find all of the past episodes of my podcast as well as the transcripts to all of the episodes. If there are any words or phrases you don’t understand from the podcast, you can use the transcript to read and find out what they were. Remember, my site is EnglishwithStephen.com, that’s English with Stephen, S T E P H E N .com.
And now back to history.
About 11, 700 years ago, the last ice age finished. During the ice age, modern humans had evolved and had spread over most of the planet. Although they were still small in number, humans were living in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.
As the ice age was going, humans were in a perfect position to spread even further and find new areas to live, following the ice as it receded.
But it wasn’t just humans who had to change according to the climate. The end of the ice age affected the plants. During the ice age, it was difficult for trees to grow. But as the ice disappeared, more, and bigger, trees took over most of the planet. All of modern North America and Europe was one big forest. The trees stopped light getting through to the floor, and so plants like grass had difficulty finding a place to live.
One of the few places that grass could survive was on the Eurasian Steppe. The Steppe is a large, flat piece of land that starts around Ukraine and spreads all the way over to the Pacific Ocean. Large parts of Russia and northern China include the Steppe.
The climate on the Steppe is extreme. In winter, it is very, very cold. It snows and there is a sharp wind continuously blowing. In the summer it can be very warm with little to no rain. It is very rare for trees to grow in such an environment. Grass, on the other hand, can thrive in this area where there are very few competitors.
But it isn’t just grass that finds life difficult in forests. Horses also suffered as the forests increased their dominance. It is during this stage that horses became extinct in North America. They also largely disappeared from Europe. There are two reasons for this. First, horses tend to eat grass, so if the forests stop grass from growing, they lose their main food sourse.
The second reason is that horses like space. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about the big racehorses or work horses that we have in modern culture. The horses at this time were the size of small ponies. But they still like to have space to walk around in and look for food. In thick forest, they don’t have this space. So, no food, and no space, meant that most horses died off.
Except on the Steppe.
Remember, the Steppe had no trees. Instead, it had a lot of grass. And so this area was one of the few where horses were able to exist after the end of the last ice age.
The Steppe was not a nice place to live. As I’ve already mentioned, it was extremely cold in the winter, and very dry in the summer. But we have an expression in English which is “beggars can’t be choosers.” A beggar is someone who is asking for help, especially for money when a person is very poor. If you are a beggar, you are usually desperate. The idea behind the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” is that a person asking for help has to accept what is given because that person doesn’t have a choice.
When the only place you can live is the Steppe because that is the only place that has the food you need, you cannot choose something different. In this example, the horses are the beggars and, even though the Steppe was not a nice place, they had no choice.
At about this point, I guess you are wondering what on earth horses and the ice age has to do with the origin of English. If you are, I ask you to trust me. There is a reason for talking about animals and the weather.
You see, the Steppe was also home to various groups of people. The presence of grass meant that there was food for animals like horses and other grazing animals. Grazing animals are those which eat grass or small trees and then move on to find more grass or trees. Other examples of grazing animals include sheep and cows.
Anyway, all of this grass attracted animals. And animals attracted people. People cannot live on grass. But they can live on the animals that eat grass.
Originally, most groups of people were hunter gatherers. This means that they collected their food through a mixture of hunting other animals and collecting food that they found, like nuts, berries, or honey.
Over time, some people realised that you could train some animals and domesticate them. Some animals, like dogs, would be able to live with humans. Other animals, like cows, sheep, and horses, would walk around looking for food, and humans would follow them, killing them as necessary for food.
This happened all over the world at different times. In the Steppe, it is believed to have happened around 7, 000 years ago. The process took a long time, but by about 4, 000 years ago the people living on the Steppe would have large herds, or collections of sheep, cows, and horses, and be able to use these animals to live.
Not a lot is known about these people. Indeed, there are a number of different ideas about why they were. The most common theory is that, by the end of this process of domesticating animals, they were called the Yanmaya people and they lived in what is today Ukraine and southern Russia.
And something strange was about to happen to these people. Something that has only happened three times in the history of humans. Something that would change these people so much that, nowadays, about 50% of the world speaks a language that has evolved from their original language.
And I’ll tell you all about that something in a few weeks when I look again at the Origins of English.