The life and times of a language

16 Mar

Stuart Burns

Some people call me a pedant, and they may be right. Take language: why can’t people just speak and write English properly? I know I’m not alone in getting bent out of shape when confronted with misplaced apostrophes or glaring spelling mistakes. But, to be frank, who am I to judge? A native English speaker, yes, but does that give me, or any of us, the right to decide what is right and wrong when it comes to language?

English, like any language, is alive. Not in a running around sort of way, but certainly when it comes to birth, death, marriage, kids, moving house, getting old, even dying. Just like you change as you have new experiences and come in contact with new people and new settings, so does language. So, I guess we should start by looking at where English was born. Well, not so much born as created, although don’t think of it as Adam, rather Frankenstein’s monster. English is, in the simplest of terms, Dutch. And German. And a bit of Danish. But as Dutch and German and Danish have all been through millennia of changes, sometimes it’s hard to see this.

The Angles and Saxons, among a variety of Germanic-language-speaking tribes including the sadly forgotten-about Jutes, came to this island and made it their home. There was no mass media, no way of communicating throughout the country, and the place was a mish-mash of various groups speaking various dialects of various languages. Even the concept of “English” was way off. The dialects began to change: before, when you lived back in Holland, you understood your neighbours and they understood you. Now, you might come in contact with people who, back home, had lived hundreds of miles away and who spoke completely differently.

Whiz forward a few hundred years to when the royals were actually influential and a certain King Alfred decides that people should speak a more standardised language. Voilà, ‘Englisc’, a very primitive form of our language. Still, the country lacks any form of mass communication or education system, so if you live in Hexham, you’re unlikely to know what the right way to speak was according to the powers that be, based in Winchester. It makes things a bit easier, though, and it marks the beginning of the creation of Old English and, with it, England.

So, English is now a teenager, a confusing time for anyone. It doesn’t really know what to think, and so when the exotic and romantic French moves into the area, teenage rebellion ensues. Good-bye to cases and fixed word order and those ugly, Germanic sounds; hello beauty and freedom and, most importantly, prestige. While the past signifies hard labour and poverty, the new (what we call “Middle”) English is populated with terms to describe luxury and high-falutin ideas. French, the rascal, uses its seductiveness to influence all the cool areas of society. Literature flourishes: even though we’re years off mass printing, the new style of language gives authors choice over words, making written texts much more interesting.

English is now a young adult. It goes backpacking and makes new friends, some who live in bungalows, some who eat blinis and some who drink lattes. Its parents can hardly speak to it any more, it has changed so much. It is now time for it to make its own way in life. What better way then with the new-fangled printing press. But with adult life comes more responsibility! Those horrible prescriptivists keep telling it how to live its life. You must be like this, English! You must conform! You tell us one thing, and then something entirely different straight after! Come along now, make your mind up…

What we know today is elderly English. It has been through a lot, seen and heard a great deal, and is now at the mercy of all of us. Those across the pond deal with it in a completely different way to those down under, and even on our little island we treat it in a whole variety of different ways. We speak an incredibly rich, diverse language, and so when it comes to making decisions over its “correct” form, we’re going to encounter some problems. None of us are in a position to decide what is best for the language, and yet we do so on a regular basis, picking people up on mistakes or foibles in pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, even vocabulary and grammar. In fact, some people consider language to be a mark of a person’s cultivation. If you don’t know how to use apostrophes, then you’re probably not particularly trustworthy and your morals are likely to be highly questionable.

Perhaps this is a bit far, but there are certainly people who feel an inflated sense of superiority because they speak correctly while others do not. Whip out a Victorian grammar book and soon you’ll see how wrong we all are. If they’d had grammar books in Alfred’s time, then we’d know how wrong the Victorians were, and so on. Language change is a necessary part of the life of a language. It needs to allow us to talk about new ways of life and new states of mind.

It might be getting on for a couple of thousand years old, but there’s plenty of life left in ol’ English yet. Who knows what it’ll be like in a few hundred years’ time, but it’s likely that our ancestors will think we sounded pretty strange back in 2011.


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