Monday, July 02, 2012

Remake, remodel

In other words, I was very surprised to discover that, even though I have virtually ignored this site for the past few years, it still receives several hundred hits a month.

As a result of this ongoing interest, I have decided to continue my potted (if not quite potty) history of the growth and expansion of the English language.

So watch this space for a new posting in the next few days!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sex, Lies, and ... Dictionaries?!

Yes, the title 's just a little bit misleading this month, I know, but you try making somebody sit up and read a text this length just about ... dictionaries! Yes, in fact even the very word ‘dictionary’ is misleading, as everybody knows that those damned books are no good for improving your diction at all. Have you ever tried finding out just how to pronounce even one difficult word with the help of a dictionary? Try looking up ‘tarsometarsus’ or ‘condyloma’ and see how far you get. All those funny squiggles and symbols are no real help to anybody, are they.

Yet ironically dictionaries were originally devised for just that purpose - to show the interested but ignorant Joe Public the correct way to say ‘excoriate’, ‘modus operandi’ and other so-called ‘hard words’, which had been imported into English from Latin and Greek. In fact, my Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology (that means the origin, formation and development of words to you unenlightened suckers) states that the word ‘dictionary’ first stepped into our language in the 16th century, and is derived from the medieval Latin word ‘dicto’, meaning ‘word’ or ‘phrase’. That’s no great surprise, you might rightly sigh, but hold your criticism a little longer, I beg.

In previous articles I have mentioned that ‘correctness’ in language use started to become an issue in England around the late 17th century, with the publications of various ‘grammars’ designed to educate the unlettered in composing a proper sentence. Well, in the late 18th century Pronunciation Dictionaries began appearing also, again to satisfy the doctrine of correctness. One of these infernal books was John Waller’s “A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary” of 1791, which provided helpful lists of ‘rules for attaining a just pronunciation of English’.

Waller shared with his (almost) contemporary Doctor Samuel Johnson, that compiler of the first widely-acclaimed ‘proper’ dictionary of English in 1755, an unashamed disrespect for the abundance of accents and dialects that were common in England at that time. However, although he acknowledged the wide range of provincial ‘Englishes’, he offered his dictionary as a means for such mere backwoods types to improve their manners of speaking: a sort of ‘Teach Yourself King’s English’. His real bile, however, he reserved for the lower classes of the capital: “the Cockney jabber” he excoriated, “though not half so erroneous as that of any of the provinces, is, to a person of correct taste, a thousand times more offensive and disgusting.” Cor blimey, guvnor, wo’d’yermean!

Strange as it may seem, the world’s most famous catalogue of our language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), did not appear until towards the end of the 19th century. This authoritative work was in fact published only after several decades of painstaking research and investigation by the Philological Society, originally set up in 1858. Similar to its predecessors, this encyclopaedia of our tongue also shared a contempt for the spoken language of the nation, as it devoted its entire attention to the nation’s literary past in its quest to establish a standard of English that would be deemed ‘acceptable’.

Moreover, in the Society’s original proposal there was no mention made of the pronunciation of words, whereas the origins, history and relationships of words were to receive prominence. For example, the word ‘folk’ is traced right back to its Teutonic origins, meaning ‘people, army, detachment’, and paralleled with the Slavonic and Russian word ‘polk’, denoting a division of an army; even the Lithuanian ‘pulkas’ (crowd) is included in the entry. So, not much help with your diction there, but immensely edifying, nevertheless.

Now, hold on a bit, as this is where things take a slight twist. There is an argument that goes something along the following lines. Several contemporary critics from the far left of the political spectrum have stated that the OED was a reflection of that era’s preoccupation with nationalism. In other words, by helping to create an artificial bridge between the classes, the historical study of the nation’s language and literature provided solid grounds for the foundation of an unwarranted patriotism. Sounds convincing? Maybe not, but surely interesting, anyway.

Also playing a small part in this theory of conspiracies is a colonial chappie by the name of Webster. Arguably the most influential individual compiler of dictionaries, Mr Noah Webster was the pioneering lexicographer who almost single-handedly gave us, for better or worse, American English. In fact he predated the publication of the OED by around a century, and had the good sense to look into the future rather than the past in compiling his project. Fortunately (or not, according to your view; but you’ve done well to make it this far through the article), this guy fully deserves a chapter all to himself, so I’ve decided to spare you his achievements until next week.

Anyway, now you know why a dictionary is not really a ‘dictionary’ at all, but more of a ‘wordbook’, which is what it is rightly called in most other languages. Feel better for that, do you?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Say, just who is this Johnson guy, anyway?

After last month's article that featured a rather flattering profile of Dr Samuel Johnson, a few people wrote and asked me just who the guy really was. This is rather a tall order, but perhaps a little information will help those who've never encountered Johnson or his works before. For the following information, I’m greatly indebted to Jack Lynch and his website, ‘Guide to Samuel Johnson’, which you can find at the following address:

Johnson was undoubtedly one of the most important English writers of the 1700s. It's long been traditional to refer to the second half of the eighteenth century as “the age of Johnson”, just as the first half is often called “the age of Swift and Pope”. In fact, Johnson is one of the most quoted prose writers in the English language in most dictionaries of quotations, with only Shakespeare and the Bible edging him out of the limelight.

However, he's usually remembered not as a writer but as a talker, as a personality, and this is mostly thanks to James Boswell's book 'The Life of Samuel Johnson', which was published in 1791. In fact, many of the famous lines in the quotation dictionaries come not from his works but from Boswell's recollection of his conversation. By doing so, Boswell put Johnson in a very small club: authors whose most famous works were actually written by someone else!

So, who exactly was this enigmatic quipper with the quill? Johnson was born in September 1709 in Lichfield, England (near Birmingham), and died in December 1784 in London. He was the son of Michael Johnson, a Lichfield bookseller. In 1728 he began his Oxford career as a student of Pembroke College, but lack of money forced him to abandon his studies after little more than a year.

Johnson then somehow fell into teaching, and later ‘eloped’ to London with his pupil, David Garrick, hoping to make a living as a ‘respectable’ writer. He had no luck there, and so was forced to scratch a living taking miscellaneous writing jobs. He wrote biographies, political satires, and reports on Parliamentary debates. His first big break came in 1738, with the publication of a poem called 'London', an imitation of a satire by the Latin poet Juvenal.

Some years later he planned to publish a treatise on Shakespeare, but the project fell through, so he settled on the idea of publishing a dictionary. In popular accounts, his 'Dictionary of the English Language', which he brought out in 1755, is often called the first English dictionary. Although it was obviously not, it was, however, far and away the most important dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in the following century.

While working on the Dictionary, he also published a series of periodical essays, the closest modern equivalent of which would be would probably be something like a magazine or newspaper column. These writings appeared twice a week between 1750 and 1752, and were typically published under the title of 'The Rambler'. Later he wrote and made contributions to two other series of essays, 'The Idler' and 'The Adventurer'.

In 1759 he published 'Rassel', an oriental tale. It was a short work of fiction (about a hundred pages in most modern editions), although few scholars call it a novel. It was written to defray the costs of his mother's funeral. Johnson had scraped a living together from his writing, but was never anywhere near rich. However, the benevolent ministry of George III saw its way to giving him a pension of 300 pounds a year in 1762.

In the 1770s, Johnson returned to miscellaneous and political writings, few of which have ever caught the attention of amateur readers. Yet between 1779 and 1781 came a series originally called 'Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets', better (but inaccurately) known today as 'The Lives of the Poets'.

Johnson was famous during his lifetime as an important literary figure, or what would nowadays probably be referred to as a celebrity, and a number of biographies appeared shortly after his death. The most famous was Boswell's in 1791, and shortly after this date he effectively became immortalised through his collected sayings. Boswell had only spent a matter of months with Dr Johnson, but during that period he had managed to accrue enough material to preserve the Doctor for posterity.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The English Patient: What the Doctor Ordered

You probably don’t know this, but English, the language that you speak in all its garbled glory, was once a very poorly patient, the “Sick Man of Europe” in fact. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries it was subjected to the imperious scrutiny of some of the world’s greatest GPs of grammar, and the diagnosis was, truth to tell, not very encouraging.

I found our speech copious without order”, went one such surgeon of language structures, “and energetic without rules”. Obviously this sort of linguistic partying had to stop: but there were more serious complaints, too. “Wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.” So it was some sort of ‘Killjoys Charter’, was it, out to cast a very wet blanket over the whole shebang? Well, perhaps not quite.

The above comments belong, of course, to Doctor Samuel Johnson, who in 1755 published his very own definitive dictionary of the English language. The reason, in case you can’t guess, is that the patient, our own tongue, was apparently in danger of passing away into a nether-world of mutual incomprehension and linguistic darkness. In fact, the wise Doc believed that “tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degenerate. We have long preserved our constitution, [so] let us make some struggles for our language.” Hear-hear, voice a million or so conservatives all at once.

However, our not so humble Doctor was not the first among his peers to bemoan the dire state of his English patient. More than a hundred years before, the royalist political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had claimed to have discovered a breakdown of language during the Civil War decade of the 1640s. “One man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty, what another Justice” he wrote in his defence of the King’s divine right to rule over a peaceful Commonwealth, held together by agreed rights and obligations.

In fact, Hobbes’ main thrust was that if language was breaking down, then so too was society, and these rather simplistic types of association between the language’s perceived health and issues of social and political stability have been reiterated time and time again by generations of anxious conservative observers. Whether they will ever be seen to be true probably requires further patience.

But let’s not jump too far ahead quite yet. One of the great Renaissance scholars, John Wallis, (pictured above) had also attempted to put things in order with his ‘Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae’ of 1653, which sliced the unfortunate victim from top to bottom in its efforts to provide a rigorous and complete analysis of the patient’s ailments. Of course, publishing his thesis in Latin brought the poor invalid little benefit, despite his efforts to write the first truly systematic grammar of the language. Nowadays, Wallis is probably better remembered for being one of the founding members of the Royal Society.

As a result it was left to Jonathan Swift, a clergyman and writer, to make further attempts to refine the language and fix it so that it no longer changed in the early 1700s. However, his efforts to bring it back up to 'a certain standard', in his own words, and protect it from charges of ‘barbarism’, were as unsuccessful as those of the previous century. He and his grammarian cohorts failed in their moves to establish an ‘Academy of English’, which was to follow the lines of the continental French and Italian ‘Royal Academies’ and regulate the language’s use in tablets of stone.

This previous medicine having proved unsuccessful, it fell upon dear old Doc Johnson to try and restore the by-now staggering fellow to full health. His diagnosis centred on an individual analysis of several parts of the whole, and some of his observations make extremely interesting reading. Let’s dip into a few of them and see what pearls of wisdom the old Doctor came up with.
Firstly, he was very keen to protect his charge from foreign contamination. He had good cause to quote “the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of genuine diction. Our language has, for almost a century, been gradually departing from its original Teutonick character, and deviating towards a Gallick structure, from which it ought to be our endeavour to recall it.” So, single-handedly Dr Johnson was attempting to prevent our tongue from lapsing into Franglais, a couple of centuries before the term was even invented!

He would also have no business with translators, whom he accused of “the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation”, and of introducing too many changes in phraseology. “If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our stile,” he raged, “let them endeavour with all their influence to stop the licence of translatours, whose idleness and ignorance will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.” Again, a prediction of wicked French poisoning.

And then there were the pesky lower classes, of whom he wrote “Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, the diction is in a great measure casual and mutable. [Their] fugitive cant is always in a state of increase or decay [and] can not be regarded as any part of the durable materials of the language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.” Dismissive of the accents and dialects of the greatest part of the nation, the kindly Doctor would have made a swift incision and removed their speech without a single thought for any anaesthetic.

In fact, one can just imagine him, a sprightly old fellow in a well-groomed wig, out strolling along Cheapside of a Sunday afternoon and wincing visibly at the loathsome treatment his beloved language was receiving from the lower orders around him; and then sitting to rest awhile on a bench, ferociously scribbling away at his notepad, making his prognosis for putting the patient back on the road to recovery, based on a typically English version of ‘liberty’, as opposed to the French and their fanatical adherence to tyrannical laws. How would he see things now, with French being overrun by his dear invalid, Mr English?

Coming Next: English and The State in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The English Language: from Codification to Standardisation

In last month's article I drew your attention to how, in the course of the 16th and 17 the centuries, the English language became subject to serious academic and scholarly attention. This, I tried to argue, was notably due to Latin’s fall into virtual disuse, which was finished off by (a) Henry 8th’s emasculation of the Catholic church and their hold on education, and (b) the need for a unified and codified language to serve the emerging nation-state of England.

Another reason was that practical interest in the mechanics of the language was generally appearing widespread, due to it being formally taught in the country’s schools. There was also the 'Rise of Science' to consider as well, which, in accordance with its spirit of independent scientific discovery, served to promote rational analysis of the language. Anyway, enough of the technical stuff: this time I’d like to show how the first efforts to codify our language inevitable led a process of standardisation, a standardisation that is still disputed even today.

One of the first grammar books to appear in English was William Lily’s 'A Shorte Introduction of Grammar', which was published in 1523. In fact, Lily limited himself to describing Latin grammar, which was of limited use to scholars of English! It does, however, explain why English grammar is full of obscure terms that were originally written for another language entirely, as the scrutinisers of our tongue adopted Lily’s terms almost wholesale. Take just ‘participle’, ‘decline’, ‘parse’ and ‘substantive’ as examples, words which today give little idea of their true meaning or function.

Our first true grammar of English came later, in 1586, in the shape of Bullokar’s 'Bref Grammar for English'. This book was, in fact, quite unique, in that it not only attempted to describe how English worked, but also tried to rationalise the spelling system and the language’s structures. It therefore intended to indicate how English should be, rather than merely how it was, and the rest of us have suffered ever since from teachers and pedants telling us how we really ought to speak and write. But, as I like to argue with my Arabic teacher, which is better; to talk like a book, or a real person?

By the late 16th century, the writing of grammar books such as Bullokar’s had become a political expedient. Every European state worth its independent Crown needed to be able to provide its own grammar of the national tongue. This so-called ‘spirit of linguistic patriotism’ typically involved attempts by vernacular grammarians and lexicographers to reject regional dialects and linguistic inconsistencies in an effort to somehow fix the language, to impose a linguistic conformity that never really existed.

In the case of English, this process of trying to establish one single variant of the English language was rather like nailing jelly to the wall. There were so many variants of the English language in existence at that time, as indeed there still are at present. In the late 16th century it was believed that the language spoken either in the provinces or by the lower orders was not fine enough to promote as a standard. George Puttenham, in his 'The Arte of English Poesie' wrote that the accepted language should be the following:

“...naturall, pure, and the most usuall of all his country’” and not that found “in any uplandish village or corner of the Realme, where is no resort but of poor rusticall or uncivill people”.

Neither, he advised “shall he follow the speach of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferiour sort, for such persons doe abuse good speaches by strange accents or ill-shaped sounds. But he shall follow the better brought up sort, men civill and graciously behavioured and bred.” So, the working classes were criticised for their diabolical pronunciation and their lack of overall culture!

Northerners also came in for a verbal bashing: “neither shall he take the terms of Northern-men, such as they use in dayly talke - not in effect any speach used beyond the river of Trent. Ye shall therefore take the usual speach of the Court, and that of London and of the shires lying about London within 60 miles.” So the message was that there was a standard, albeit an artificial one, created by ridiculing and deriding the everyday speech of the greatest part of the country. Fixing the ‘best’ English thus involved a high degree of social and regional exclusiveness.

In short, Puttenham’s hierarchical view of English came to be the accepted one, and any later notion of ‘Standard English’ involved a high degree of social and literary correctness. This idea was picked up in the early 18th century by writers such as Jonathan Swift and Dr Johnson, and, unfortunately, here is where we have to pause to take a breather as I’ve run out of space. So, next month, don’t miss the next thrilling instalment of “How your Language got put into a Straight Jacket”.

Monday, June 18, 2007

English, the Choice of Gentlemen the World Over

There comes a moment in practically every young rascal’s life when he feels the urge to ‘get respectable’ and try and earn the approval of his peers. The earlier it happens, the more orthodox a person you turn out to be, at least that’s my view anyway. Well, the same thing happened for the English language too.

Fortunately for the English language this urge to conform came at a late moment in its life, and was not entirely successful. However, the mere attempt has very probably served to blight it for the rest of its existence. Not a pure language by any means, much more of a hybrid in fact, English continues to drag its wayward forms around the world, to the constant disillusion of millions of its students.

So what am I rambling on about now? Well, it’s to do with the fact that our loveable Anglo-Saxon English was always a mean, cowering, mongrel bitch of a language, complete with rotten spelling, bad pronunciation, and some decidedly dodgy vowel sounds. Yet way back in the Renaissance years the poor thing found itself the object of much unwanted attention from that most unsavoury group of people, scholars and academics.

These upstanding gentlemen actually had the nerve to compare the forms and structures of our rugged tongue with those two archaic impostors, Latin and Greek. Naturally, English came off the worse in this three-way fight. Richard Ascham, who was tutor to Queen Elizabeth 1st in the 16th century, commented the following.

“As for ye Latin and Greek, every thynge is so excelently done in them that none can do better. In the English tonge, contrary, every thinge in a maner so meanly, both for the matter and handelynge, that no man can do worse.”

The reason for poor Mr Ascham’s outrage was, of course, that as Latin was falling into disuse as the medium of scholarly communication, English had to be plucked from the soil and made appropriate for academic discourse. Apologising for publishing his treatise in English, he lamented the language’s lack of suitability for serious literary and scholarly use. Poor old English!
So what did they do, this bunch of self-appointed guardians of our language’s heritage? Well, some 16th century authors actually tried to make the tongue more sophisticated by (a) increasing its vocabulary, and (b) hiking up the language’s polysemy (which means the ability of a word to have more than one meaning). For example, how many different meanings can you find in the following words: draught, form and stock. I would argue that you can find around ten or twelve different shades of meaning between the three of them, and I’m sure a good dictionary would back me up on this: try it yourself!

In fact, between 1500 and 1700 more than 30,000 new words were added to the language’s lexicon, and this was done in three different ways. Firstly, words were hijacked (or rather, adapted) from Latin and Greek and stuffed into a new English setting. Secondly, they could be invented. And the other alternative was to dig deep into the existing barrel of lexical morsels, dust off a few obsolete words, and bring them up into the fresh light of day, perhaps with a new twist to the original meaning.

By thus enfranchising foreign and forgotten words, English came to resemble a ’proper’ language in the eyes of the scholars. Moreover, this also made English, particularly written English, harder to understand, and served to differentiate it further still from the spoken form of the language (whence the phrase ‘talking like a book’ and ‘swallowed a dictionary’). Dictionaries of difficult words were published, the very first dictionaries of our language in fact, to guide the enthusiastic but baffled reader through the maze of neologisms.

But there’s never a movement without a backlash, is there, and it wasn’t long before a competing camp emerged. This bunch of little Englanders denied that Latin and Greek should ever be allowed to wheedle their way past the door, and challenged with a traditionalist and nationalist approach in which Anglo-Saxon vocabulary was preferred to foreign imports. Far better to rehabilitate archaic words than invite strange ones into the fold, they argued.

These writers claimed that it would be impossible to create a truly national literature, reflecting the cultural identity of the emerging nation-state, with tools of a foreign nature. Ben Jonson, the Elizabethan dramatist, obliged one of his characters to expel his “terrible windy words” such as ‘conscious’ , ‘inflate’, ‘reciprocal’ and ‘strenuous’. Strange that these should all be words in reasonably common usage today: but every debate has its winners and losers.

So, in short, English was given a new career by various groups of scholars who couldn’t even agree on the correct path to take. But, nonetheless, and like it or not, our tongue found a degree of ‘respectability’ that was to be an essential prerequisite to it becoming a world language. Our scabby crossbreed became a pampered poodle, an object of arguably unwarranted attention and occasionally subject to an excess of superficial pride.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Henry the 8th and the English Language: of Popes, Protestants and Puritans

In my previous articles on the history of our diverse and distinguished tongue, I’ve spent a fair deal of time harking on about the virtues of such shining lights in the lexicon of the English language as Caxton, Shakespeare, and King Alfred. Well, the time has come to turn the spotlight away from the obvious stars, and focus on some of the lesser-known pioneers of our dialect. Except, perhaps by lesser-known, I don’t automatically mean that their names will be strangers to you, but that their actions are not always the first to be considered part of our linguistic heritage.

Now, not a lot of people know this, but Henry 8th, England’s very own embodiment of polygamy, actually made no small contribution himself to the English language. You might have imagined him as just a randy royal with an insatiable capacity for wives and executions: but no, for if it hadn’t been for His Royal Corpulence, English might well have never made it past the first hurdle. Interested? Then please read on.

Most of us with a British education might be dimly aware that in the 1530s Henry the 8th declared himself head of the English church, thus ousting the Pope and the Catholic religion at the same time. This act is usually referred to as The Reformation, and it had the obviously important effect of creating a radical decline in the status of the church in England, and also an equally clear increase in the power of the monarchy (thus leading to Civil War in the following century - but that’s another story).

In fact, where this matters in linguistic affairs is twofold. Firstly, by closing down the monasteries, he isolated the church from their hold on the written form. Remember here that in the past it had traditionally been only monks who were allowed to create texts, and these had been mostly written in Latin.

Secondly, there is the fact that there arose a particularly Protestant definition of Englishness that was defensive towards outsiders, and which began to use the English language as one of its instruments of defence. An example of this can be seen in the first publication of the Bible in English in the mid 16th century, an act of defiance which has often been understood to be one of the most decisive moments in the creation of a ‘standard’ English.

We should not forget here that Latin was still very much the language of the church back then, but was almost totally incomprehensible to the common Englander. By casting the religion of Rome back across the channel, Latin also went the same way. This, of course, left only English to step in and fill the vacuum made by the departing tongue.

If the link between Christianity and Latin had been damaged by Henry’s sacrilegious acts, it was broken beyond repair by the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in English in 1549. With the publication in 1611 of the Authorised Version of the Holy Bible, also in English of course, the definitive text became widely spread and popularly read.

In general, then, the monarchy seemed to have grasped the political significance of using translation as a way of asserting its authority. Catholic laws were written in Latin, but now there would be Protestant ones written in English. Translating these laws into the common language represented a challenge to papal authority and a ‘foreign’ law.

However, for some fat King Henry’s church reforms did not go far enough, and this had an even greater parallel with reforms of the English language. These people came to be called Puritans, as they promoted a ‘purer’ form of worship, one which promoted the idea of an essentially English church, freed of the pomp of Rome.

They championed the English language over the Latin, favouring plain and simple language purged of any Latinate eloquence, and even looked back on the Norman invasions as a disruption of our Anglo-Saxon heritage. Accordingly they took a good deal of interest in Old English manuscripts and in local dialects, publishing ‘dictionaries’ of localised words in the late 17th century.

George Fox was the founder of the Quakers, a Puritan group whose egalitarian ideas had apparently inseparable links with our use of language. He used his knowledge of Old English to argue in favour of keeping in common usage the word ‘thou’, which was being driven out by the more modern ‘you’. As we can see, though, he had little success. Language seems to chose its own rules, although in some local dialects of England you can still hear ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ commonly used.

In short, the Puritan’s outlook on our language brought with it an understanding of history and struggle, as well as an appreciation of its extended localised base. This, in turn, made it possible to perceive English as a national language, capable of uniting all the blessed people of England under the eye of God, who no doubt had a keen grasp of the lingo himself. So, one nation, England, and one language, English. As simple as that.

NB: Coming next month: ‘posh’ English and the drive for standardisation!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Shakespeare’s Legacy: Queer Words and Timeless Expressions?

In my last article on the development of English, I signed off with a piece about William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England and inadvertently set about standardising our language. As well as the obvious technical aspects of his achievements, however, there is also the cultural side to consider.

In fact, what Caxton did was to actually establish his own local East Midlands dialect of the tongue as the norm. By putting, for example, the word ‘home’ into print, instead of one of the other variant spellings (and pronunciations), such as ‘hame’, he relegated all other variants to the dustbin of history, and unwittingly subjected them to a good deal of subsequent ridicule, too. Now, the English middle-classes are quite fond of lampooning those with non-standard accents and quaint country dialects: but few of them probably know that what they perceive as the imperial standard was once itself as provincial as Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.

However, no matter: in 1592 the writer Thomas Nashe paid tribute to such attempts for having “cleansed our language from barbarism and made the vulgar sort here in London aspire to a richer purity of speech”. Even today the language of the common Londoner is still enough to make ‘educated’ speakers wince, and long may it stay that way (OK, I admit I’m a Londoner, and proud of my rather unique way of pronouncing ‘butter’ as ‘bu’er’).

Around the same time there was another Midlands fellow in London trying to make a name for himself, and this chap also shared with Caxton another common (but not vulgar) feature, the same forename; William. This guy was, of course, William Shakespeare, and together with his name-sake they are probably responsible for much of the current state of the modern language.

In fact, Shakespeare’s impact on the English language can probably be best seen in three dimensions: grammar, vocabulary and idioms. It’s these aspects that I would like to hold up for your attention this month, and hopefully make you realise just how much of a debt our modern tongue owes to this wise-cracker from the West Midlands.

Firstly, there’s the fact that English grammar in the 16th century was quite fluid, allowing poets and writers to exploit its ambiguities to great effect. This meant that, as word order had not yet established itself as one of the prime indicators of meaning, adjectives and verbs could be interpreted as nouns, and vice versa. For instance, the line "let not my an Idoll show" could lead us to believe that ‘doll’ is a noun and ‘show’ a verb. There is, however, a lurking suspicion that ‘show’ is a noun, and ‘Idoll’ an adjective, which would lead us to a very different interpretation.

Another indicator of the changes that have happened in English since then can be found in Macbeth, where the question “Goes the King hence today?” almost requires translation. Modern English would demand the word ‘do’ for such questions, and in this particular instance the aspect would be continuous rather than simple: “Is the King leaving today?”. The same could be said for Polonius’ question “What do you read, my Lord?”. Most of us would be tempted to answer something along the lines of “Well, I usually read, books, magazines, newspapers, etc”, whereas the original question was more to do with the ‘here and now’, and in current times would be better put as “What are you reading, my Lord?”.

“And so what?” you might boldly ask. Well, what the above serves to indicate is that language is not ‘written in tablets of stone’ (forgive the slight pun), as many like to believe, but is fluid, everchanging, and in constant development from one stage to another. Therefore the idea of a ‘standard’ English language, which is constant and somehow superior to others, is hard to sustain.

Next there’s Shakespeare’s wide vocabulary to consider. He is often credited with having coined words such as ‘accommodation’ and ‘assassination’, amongst others, and was also the first to put into print many other newly sprung words of his time: ‘demonstrate’, ‘dire’ and ‘horrid’ are just three examples. Many other words he also breathed life into, but the passage of time has led to their being forgotten and left in disuse.

Perhaps more importantly, many historians believe he used his West Midlands roots and dialect as a source for many new colourful words. Such words as ‘ballow’ (cudgel), ‘gallow’ (to frighten), and ‘geck’ (idiot) can be found in his works, and they were certainly not part of standard English at that time nor now. Unfortunately these localisms did not catch on - maybe the sophisticated Londoners of the time were swift to recognise their simple country origins, and left them on the page for the linguistic historians to mull over.

Finally, we come to the fact that many of our modern expressions and idioms came to us through the pen of Shakespeare himself. Whether he actually invented them or not is not clear, but it’s probably doubtful. However, Bernard Levin (no small writer himself) summarised a good deal of Shakespeare’s achievements when he stated that:

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘it’s all Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you recall your salad days, or act more in sorrow than in anger, you’re quoting Shakespeare. If you have ever refused to budge an inch, have played fast and loose, have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, then you’re also quoting Shakespeare. And if you’ve ever slept not a wink, stood on ceremony, had short shrift or cold comfort, or even had too much of a good thing, if you’ve seen better days, lived in a fool’s paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as luck would have it) again quoting Shakespeare.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

William Caxton - Master or Mangler of the English Language?

In last month's article we saw how the English language was affected by such social and human phenomena as the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that these events helped in some ways to transform English from a ragbag of mutually unintelligible dialects into a standardised language. I also mentioned the name of a certain William Caxton, who has been attributed with almost single-handedly forging our modern tongue. So this week I’d like to spend a little more time with Mr Caxton (1422-91), and take a closer look at his achievements.

Few historians of English linguistics dispute that Caxton’s introduction of the printing press into Britain from mainland Europe represented a key moment in the development of standard English. This is because back then, in the late 15th century, English lacked a fixed form. There was a wealth of local dialects, and a lack of conventionalised spellings, all of which presented poor old Mr Caxton with a serious problem when it came to printing his first book in English: which ‘version’ to use, and which spellings to adopt?

Caxton himself outlined the problem in the introduction to one of his books in 1490:

“And certaynly our language now used varyeth ferre from that whiche was used and spoken when I was borne. ... And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother.”

He then went on to illustrate the apparent difficulties in communication faced by speakers of that varied tongue, noting that a merchant wishing to buy food became wild with frustration when his request for ‘eggys’ was mistaken for French. Only when it was pointed out that he should be asking for ‘eyren’ did he get his meal! This led Caxton to comment:

What sholde a man in thyse dayes now write, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse everyman by cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage.”

In fact, the wise amongst you will have already spotted that Caxton showed that he was mindful of not one but two shifting factors in the complexity of our language. The tongue did not vary merely according to district, but also across time. Caxton had spent many years living abroad, from whence his ‘invention’ came, and when he returned to British shores he found the changes in the language striking. This fact, that languages are living, breathing things, rather like people themselves , and hard to pin down across the decades, creates large problems and conflicts when we attempt to codify a language and make a ‘standard’ from it. Caxton was, obviously, only too aware of this.

Here we need to bring in another historical aspect also. English had no recognised (or recognisable) common form back then, mainly because up until shortly before Caxton’s birth French had still been the official language of court and government. In fact, the century in which Caxton set up the first printing press in Westminster was the first century in which the English language in England was no longer in competition with French. Moreover, there were of course no grammar books or dictionaries for him to refer to.

Anyway, let’s get back to the heart of the matter, which was how to fix our language into a form that would be acceptable and recognisable throughout the land. Caxton solved his problem in an admirably practical way, which was perhaps to be expected from a man who had spent the earlier part of his career as a merchant and a diplomat. He simply set in type his local variety of English, which was the south-east Midlands dialect (including London). Moreover, by doing so he established, for better or worse, that particular variety of English as ‘the English language’ forever, and thus reduced all other dialects to just that: mere ‘dialects’. Since then, of course, millions of regional residents of the British Isles have waxed furiously at the suggestion that their English is in some way ‘improper’ or ‘unacceptable’.

I’d like to finish this brief section on Mr Caxton and his magic printing machine by selecting the words of two of his ‘biographers’, R.Harris and T.J.Taylor, who manage to place the whole episode in its historical context with admirable clarity.

“Printing was the technological foundation of the European Renaissance, and the most radical innovation in human communication since the invention of writing. Caxton was a man caught at the crossroads of history in more senses than one, ... trying to introduce and popularise a new technology which was destined to revolutionise the availability of information in a civilised society. This profoundly important initiative was undertaken in the most linguistically adverse circumstances possible, for what had just broken down was the universal viability of Latin; and in England there was no comparably stable language to take its place.”

In short, the printing press demanded uniformity, but as none was present in the country at the time, one of the varieties simply had to be chosen.

So, the next time you find yourself having to explain the weird nature of the English spelling system, why we write ‘through’ and ‘threw’, but say ‘throo’, and why ‘cow’ and ‘show’ are not pronounced the same at all, you now know where to point the finger of guilt!

Monday, February 19, 2007

English as a Tool of Power, and an Object of Change.

In my previous article I said that we would go on to take a look at the social and economic circumstances which bore great influence on the progress of our tongue. Well, today we shall indeed look at the changes that took place, mainly in the 16th century, and which affected our dear old language greatly. However, many of these modifications were obviously linked to and caused changes in other fields, so do forgive me if I appear to be drifting off into some apparently unrelated sphere. Please bear with me, and I promise I’ll bring you back to Earth safely.

Firstly I’d like to preface these few paragraphs with a brief statement to the effect that the period from 1450 to 1750, commonly called the Early Modern English period, was characterised by startling developments in human achievements . Not only did the language begin to modernise, but society did too. It progressed from the mediaeval to the modern, bringing about an intellectual and economic liberation that had been unthinkable in previous centuries. For example, the traditional dogmas of the Catholic church were tossed away in favour of freedom of thought and scientific opportunity.

So let’s start by taking a look at the Renaissance. “What’s that?” I hear the uneducated amongst you cry. Well, the Renaissance was, in simple terms, “a time of revival of art, literature, and learning in Europe”, which began in the 14th century and extended to the 17th century, thus “marking the transition from the mediaeval to the modern world.” So what’s this got to do with English? Quite a lot, in fact.

As scholars were rediscovering the works of many classical scholars of Greek and Roman times, their works were coming into demand by the newly-emerging merchant classes of Britain. However, most of these newly wealthy merchants were not quite up to the mark in their educational achievements, being virtually illiterate in the typical language of scholarship and learning, which was still clearly Latin. Either that, or they were unwilling to struggle with the language, so they therefore needed translations into English to satisfy their curiosity. Enter the recently developed printing presses, who were keen to produce the texts that the new burgher classes wanted to read.

This is where the link with the English language really deepens. As the development of printing stimulated growth in the translation of texts into English, the need for some sort of a standard in the language grew stronger. William Caxton, whom we mentioned last week as one of the most influential people in the nurture of our tongue, was one of the first to oblige the new market’s commercial needs, and adopted a script that was to have a profound standardising effect on the language. Anyway, more about him next week, let’s not try and drift off the theme too much.

The second area to delve into is that of the Reformation, or the split in the Catholic church. Now, I can appreciate that some of you might be scowling in disbelief at the idea that the Catholic church might have played a part in the development of our language, but just hold your judgement for a while and read on. In fact, the Pope and his Catholic apostles were at one time dominant across all of Europe, but their hegemony was challenged in the 16th century by groups of people who came to be called Protestants. The exact nature of their dispute is not for me to discuss in these few lines, but the outcome of their dispute was certainly important, especially for English.

In short, adventurous tyrants such as King Henry 8th declared their independence from papal authority, and set about forging new ideas in the cultural and religious world. Fortunately for him the newly-invented printing press enabled him to do just that with a fair degree of ease. The publication of the Bible in English in the mid-16th century has since been regarded as one of the most decisive moments in creating a standard English. In other words, if King Henry hadn’t been such a demon for divorce, the English language that we speak today might well have followed a different path.

The third aspect that we need to consider is ‘humanism’, or the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’, and it is in no small way related to the hoo-hah noted in the previous two paragraphs. Essentially, as academics began to feel themselves freed from the restrictive cloaks of pre-Reformation times, they became more disposed to regard aspects of human life as the product of human endeavour, rather then divine inspiration. This freedom brought with it many scholarly treatises on language and grammar, as well as dictionaries.

Moreover, the consequent discussion of modern discoveries made by, for example, Copernicus and Newton, caused many new English words to be coined. This in turn led to new forms of reasoning and argument, needed to develop and sustain such ideas, and which required great innovation in the grammatical resources (and resourcefulness) of English.

The result of all of the above human phenomena was that a certain standardisation occured in the English language. It was transformed “from a vernacular language into one with a standardised variety that could be identified with a single nation-state: England”. Such was the power of the social and economic conditions of the time, that they helped to create a ‘de jure’ language from a ‘de facto’ one. As you can see, English is still sometimes still lacking in its scope, and unfortunately remains dependent on Latin for some of its more profound expressions.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Consolidation and Expansion: the English Language, 1450 to 1750

The period of growth in the English language which lasted from around 1450 to 1750 is commonly known as Early Modern English. In this period the language which we now speak and call ‘English’ became more recognisable in its modern form, it became standardised to a good degree, and it consolidated itself as the national tongue of Britain.

Moreover, as Britain grew in commercial terms and acquired colonies overseas, the language entered a truly expansionist phase. The language was thus exported along with various goods and commodities to the Americas and to Australia, where it became permanent residents. It also found itself in India, where it enjoyed a brief spell in the saddle before being booted out along with its owners. Firm traces of its presence there, however, still remain, and some people argue in favour of accepting ‘Indian English’ as a valid and exotic variant to its more commonplace brothers, British and American English.

In fact, this period of around 300 years was such an active and energetic phase for the language that it would be very difficult to summarise its achievements and misfortunes in a single chapter, let alone one article. So, this month I’ll just try and limit myself to giving the outline of what I hope to look at over the coming few weeks. For those of you who will be hanging around the UAE for the coming few months, I hope to be able to provide you with something edifying to digest, and perhaps even teach you something you didn’t know about the language you speak.

So, where to begin? Many linguistic historians like to draw a line between the internal changes that a language undergoes, and the external forces that help to forge other transformations. Examples of the former would be the so-called Great Vowel Shift, which occurred in Britain during the 15th and 16th centuries. In this case, the vowel sound in a word such as ‘cow’ would have been pronounced to rhyme with ‘you’ and ‘coo’. However, by the beginning of the 1600s it was being spoken more like its present form, rhyming with ‘now’. Other examples are the long vowel sound in ‘sweet’, moving from ‘wet’ to ‘wheat’, which could have led to some mirth and confusion during the time of the changeover - did you mean ‘sweat’ or ‘sweet’, my lord?

External forces are truly the man-made ones, such as the colonisation mentioned above. Often, it is these phenomena that go on to cause unforeseen changes and developments in the linguistic process. For example, to continue the theme of colonisation, the slave trade carried black speakers of African tongues to the Caribbean and America, where they had to adapt their languages in order to communicate with those around them. As a result, many types of different ‘creole’ languages emerged, typically in the West Indies. We can see the results of this even in present day Britain, where many black youngsters prefer to adopt the styles and tones of Jamaican slang to the orthodox version of English offered in schools.

Then again, there is the ‘Great Men’ approach to linguistic history, which argues that the efforts of the great and (perhaps not so) good have done most to forge long-standing changes in the language. The names which immediately spring to mind during this period are those two distinguished Williams, Caxton and Shakespeare. So renowned are they held to be, that I feel no need to mention their achievements.

So this is what I promise for the coming few blog entries: a peek at some of the direct linguistic achievements of some of our most celebrated Englishmen, a glimpse at the changes our language experienced as it came to resemble the English that we recognise today, and also a look at the social and economic circumstances which influenced our tongue’s progress.

Can you possibly wait...?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

English through the Middle Ages

Over the past few weeks it seems that I’ve been writing a lot about the English language of our ancestors, but not really looking at it. Now, this might be understandable, if we remember that our tongue, as it was back in the Middle Ages, was rarely used for the purposes of documentation. Latin and French were the preferred modes for making records, and in fact, administrative documents did not come to be written in English in any great number until the 14th century. This might well lead the sharp-witted amongst you to cry out “Well, how do we know what the language was really like, then, if it was never written down?” Good point, I must defer.

Let’s put this another way. If Latin was the language of science and culture, and Norman French that of law and administration, what was there left to write about in (Middle) English? Well, in fact there was plenty, and we have the Church to thank for this, to some degree. Let me try and explain.

History tells us that towards the end of the 12th century the Church began losing its virtual monopoly on the production of texts. Please bear in mind that at this time there was no printing press, and hard-working monks had to copy out all texts by hand. However, demand had become so great, no doubt partly due to King William’s zest for law and order, and for getting everything documented, that so-called ‘secular scribes’ were being employed to cope with the increasing workload.

In time, these lay copyists began forming their own workshops and guilds, as demand increased further still due to the emerging merchant classes. Soon works were appearing in various varieties of the English language on subjects such as cookery, education, medicine, and even literature - Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” being one of the first ‘works of art’ to be published in this way. By looking at these texts, we can trace the development of the language over this period, in which English was essentially a third class language, and subject to few rules and efforts at standardisation.

We can see, for example, that our tongue soon adopted the French tradition of verse using rhyme instead of the Anglo-Saxon’s preferred stress and alliteration. Take a look at the following poem, “The Owl and the Nightingale”, produced somewhere in the south of England during the late 12th century.

Ich was in one sumere dale, In one suthe dizele hale, Ihered Ich holde grete tale, An hule and one niztingale, That plait was stif and starc and strong, Sumwile softe an lud among.

Understandable as modern English? Well, the word order is recognisable, but there is still evidence of Old English-style alliteration in places, and the only French word used is ‘plait’. So a translation might be helpful!

I was in a summer valley, In a very hidden corner, I heard a great tale held, An owl and a nightingale, Whose pleading was stiff and firm and strong, Sometimes soft and loud in-between.

Personally, I prefer the original myself. Moving on a few years, to the year 1230 in fact, a text produced in the West Midlands region gave other insights into the language of the period. The words ‘sustren’, ‘habben’, and ‘housen’ were used, indicating that the variety of English used around those parts had yet to lose the Germanic-Scandinavian habit of using -n to indicate plurals. In modern English those words would be ‘sisters’, ‘have’ and ‘houses’. Other items such as ‘’Ich segge’, ‘nawt’, and ‘hwet’ inform us about the local pronunciation back then of modern ‘I say’, ‘not’, and ‘what’.

The following poem, written in York around the end of the 13th century, further shows the influence of French versification, but contains no French words at all, an indication of the difference mentioned in previous articles between the ‘barbarian’ north and the ‘sophisticated’ south. Another thing you might notice is that, in common with the poem above, there were variant spelling of one word. In fact, this was not seen as a problem at the time, as, unlike French or Latin, the good old English felt no pressure to standardise from any quarters.

Wel awa sal thir hornes blau, Holy Rod thi day, Now he is dede and lies law, Was wont to blow thairn ay.

A modern version might look something like the following, but again looses something during its translation.

Alas, who shall these horns blow, Holy Cross (on) your day, Now he is dead and lies below, He who was wont to blow them always.

However, those allegedly noxious imports from across the channel had become far more pervasive by the following century. A text of the late 14th and early 15th century shamelessly displayed such recognisable interlopers as ‘corrupcioun’, ‘famylyar’, and ‘processe’, as well as ‘nacyons’ and ‘nobyll’. Less immediately recognisable, but equally foul no doubt, were ‘conmixtion’ (mixing), ‘consuetude’ (practice), and ‘construyn’ (interpret).

And so to the period of Early Modern English, which ran from 1450 to 1750, approximately. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, by the mid 15th century English was becoming the first choice for official documents. As the Crown resided in London, it was this variety of the tongue that found its way into print and official favour. The first written form of the language was in fact devised by scribes in the Chancery, and as a result the term ‘Chancery English’ was given to this original standard.

The forms and spellings used back then are therefore much the same as today’s, although our pronunciation of the words has changed. This has caused nightmares for generations of students, as the modern way of pronouncing a word has little or even nothing to do with the way it is spelt! For example, the -ou- and the -gh in ‘cough’, ‘plough’, ‘through’ and ‘enough’ can be pronounced in several different ways. Only English can do this!

However, let’s not lose the plot here, as were getting close to the end. Because all documents were still hand-copied even in the early 15th century, irregular spellings still crept in from time to time. However, ‘the lordes spirituell and temporell’ is, despite its odd apearance, immediately recognisable, as are ‘Kynges’ and ‘lettres’, unlike words such as ‘sal’ and ‘suthe’ mentioned above. In fact, real standardisation of the English language was to come only with the arrival of Caxton and his printing press in the 1470s. So, next week I really will leave behind the period of Middle English, and focus squarely on Early Modern English - I promise (or should that be ‘I swear’?).