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.