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History in English Words [Paperback]

by Owen Barfield, W. H. Auden
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 1, 2002 0940262118 978-0940262119 2nd
A classic historical excursion through the English language. Owen Barfield's original and thought-provoking works over three-quarters of a century made him a legendary cult figure. This popular book provides a brief, brilliant history of those who have spoken the Indo-European tongues. It is illustrated throughout by current English words - whose derivation from other languages, whose history in use and changes of meaning - record and unlock the larger history.

Frequently Bought Together

History in English Words + Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Wesleyan Paperback) + Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry
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Editorial Reviews


A joy to read but also of great moral value in the unending battle between civilization and barbarism. -- W. H. Auden

A learned, imaginative, moving and felicitously factual book. -- Cyril Connolly, The Sunday Times

About the Author

Owen Barfield (1898-1997), British philosopher and critic, has been called the "First and Last Inkling" because of his influential and enduring role in the group known as the Oxford Inklings, which included C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. It was Barfield who first advanced the ideas about language, myth, and belief that became identified with the thought and art of the Inklings. The author of numerous books, his history of the evolution of human consciousness, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, achieved a place in the list of the '100 Best Spiritual Books of the Century'.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Lindisfarne Books; 2nd edition (March 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0940262118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940262119
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #797,581 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
You will never get inside the heads of people living 4500 years ago by merely practising archaeology or analysing the chemical structure of ancient land-fills. The bodies of the ancients, who raised children, fought and fell in love, have turned to dust and their pyramids are but mocking monoliths on the graveyard of history.

Stones and bones cannot speak and so remain silent, and so too is the analysis of ancient poo. Ancient droppings may well give us the structure of the body, with sufficiently advanced technology; but still, the silence remains as dead as a grave.

The things our ancestors said, that is, their words, are tongues frozen in time and this is how we can get into the minds of our ancestors, so argues Owen Barfield. (The 'tongues' image is my lazy impression of Barfield's utterly fantastic style).

Owen Barfield argues that rocks can't speak, but words can. By looking at words, we can suss the psyche of humans living 6000 years ago! Words evolved over time, changed, and so did human consciousness. Our ancestors were very different from our fellow humans living today. Indeed, words are spirits, or psyches, of long gone human minds who've have been frozen and preserved in time. We can hatch the words out of their frozen-ness, and the ancients can be heard by us moderns. Barfied claims that we can step inside the thoughts of the people living generations ago, this way.

This is what History in English Words is all about. I think the title puts people off and this is why this book is unknown. The title sounds like a dry textbook. The opposite is the case.

What where our ancestors thinking 5000 years ago? Apart from inventing a time machine, this book provides a window.

No review on Amazon will ever do this book justice. All I can say is that Owen Barfield can write and no man should be as imaginative and clever as this guy.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Walk Through The Ancient Human Mind July 28, 2007
Barfield's narrative study of changes in words through the history of the English language that attest to the evolution of human consciousness. Very worthwhile, even if Barfield's style and literary landmarks are dated.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not very useful September 7, 2013
Owen Barfield's "History in English Words" is something of a disappointment. It's essentially a long-winding exposition on the origins of various English words, usually loan words. I suppose the point is to illustrate the evolution of consciousness, but I don't think Barfield manages to make the tie-in very persuasively or forcefully. The book could be interesting as philology 101, but it's hardly even Barfield 101!
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15 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Their sweat on your lips August 9, 2004
For anyone who wants to chart the change in human thought through the evolution of the currency of that thought - then this book is both tutor and inspiration.

Escape from the dull mill of Chomsky into the dazzling bakery of Barfield.

Whether you wish to understand old literature - revive and practice an ancient belief system or mystery - or even would you plumb the thinking of your ancestors or perhaps yourself in a previous lifetime then let this recent and blessed "Dead Guy" be at your elbow.
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