Kneeling in the darkling evening is the earthling, tending to his groundlings nestling in the gloaming. This is no science fiction; there are no aliens from other planets that this earthling must repel. He is an Old English earthling, an eorðling, a man of the earth, a plant-tender. He minds his roots and branches and repels aliens from other plants.
Is he a princeling or just a hireling, a mere underling? No matter: everyone is a gardener of the language. This one does so in his little corner of interest with more care than some, carefully handling and bundling, whether the lexis is prickling or fondling. So much is mixed in here, two kinds of stock mingling with so little to distinguish them. There are the words that have the old suffix for “thing belonging or pertaining to”, often with a diminutive or pejorative sense: ling. And there are the words that look the same but attach to the stem one letter later: the suffix is ing, and the stem ends in l. Among these are a goodly number that have a stem made of a root plus the le suffix: prickling, handling, tickling…
He tries, he really does, meddling with the fickle addlings of nature, not truckling, battling to keep a clear row of his darlings, his nurselings the saplings, his younglings and their siblings, needing no netting to save them from starlings and their nestlings – for those, too, belong, as do the little suckling pigs. He knows it makes little difference, sometimes none; when you blend these words into the wine or liquor of a document, the rootstock and the stem rarely make a difference in their contribution to the taste. He knows the flavour gets more influence from where people have tasted these ingredients before, for the feast of words is always a feast of worlds, the worlds of memories: where you have heard or read this and that word and phrase before will determine how you hear or read them now.
He knows it well, this earthling; it is not alien to him. He knows how a word, almost as a microcosm of the language it is part of, may start with an eye only to the soft moist crumbly earth and what comes from it, may widen its view to the world under heaven, and on the far side of a course of centuries may now turn the eye to the stars at every hearing.
The dark is done falling; the air is chilling and cold fingers are tingling. Enough shovelling and levelling and coupling. His stomach is growling, and inside awaits a warm helping of chitterlings.
But who, at last, is he, this tender tender, caring about details that so few can taste, fascinated with the parts that most people never see, gardening ling with ling but keeping them neatly hoed in rows? Who else but a linguist?
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