Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Mutation of the English Language

Note that this post is not called the mutilation of the English language. As it is, English comes in quite a few varieties and even back in the 1990s I started seeing 'American' phrasebooks, so titled, in use in France and Germany. Having worked with South Africans over the past few years, I have seen the intricacies of an English with both British and American input. Though they number the floors the way the British do, i.e. ground floor as opposed to first floor being the lowest, they refer to 'pants' to mean trousers rather than underpants. Of course they mix in some of their own like 'conscionise' which I have heard nowhere else, unlike either the British or Americans they measure distance in kilometres and as for 'stay' and 'live' as in 'where are you staying/living?' the meaning is exactly reverse of what it is in Britain. The Americans had the input of Noah Webster (1758-1843) who through his 'An American Dictionary of the English Language' (1828) moved to USA to spelling harbour as 'harbor' and so on. There are differences in grammar too, for example, in the USA you 'write your father' whereas in Britain you 'write to your father'. In American the 'building is named for Abraham Lincoln' whereas in Britain the 'building is named after Abraham Lincoln' and so on. The Americans still have a Simplfied Spelling Society: with some sensible suggestions for easing the confusion in the English language further.

Having a seven year old living in my house I know how mad the English language can appear to newcomers. Just this morning there was a mix up over 'paws', 'pores' and 'pause', which in the dialect (middle class, southern England English) I speak, are all pronounced the same. Given that English is the second most spoken language in the world, it seems mad that we had adhered to all the complexities of this language and not made it a bit easier not just for foreigners but also for our own children. A lot of it comes out of the way English sounds, setting aside dialects, even in plain English you can 'fear', 'pier', 'weir', 'here', 'cheer', 'kir', 'Kia' all rhyme, whereas, for example 'schliessen' could never rhyme with 'schreiben' and most languages are the same.

The problem for the English is that they had too many inputs. We had the roots of what became Danish and Swedish, German and Dutch as well as French and Latin input too, and mixed in words from Hindi such as jodphur and bungalow. You could argue that this makes the language dynamic and so easier to use in the modern world. This can be compared with the challenges of say, the Vatican and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in finding Latin words to describe modern technology, or more often, those who oversee the Welsh language to create vocabulary for such innovations without simply taking the English word and pronouncing it in a slightly different way or altering the letters. The Welsh word for Pakistani is Pakistanii; the Welsh word for tyre (tire in American) is teiar, which in my view is pronounced the same. However, it means that to learn English you have to learn loads of exceptions and it has recently been declared that there is no point in learning spelling rules for English because there is so much variety.

Anyway, whatever learned scholars and politicians might suggest about altering English, it is changing while we sit here arguing. A lot of this stems for technology. Playing online games, as I have commented before, writing the way I do here, I use a very different language to that of many others. 'Lol' seems to have become a word now (steming from Laugh Out Loud) and there are less common ones like IMHO (In My Humble Opinion which sounds likes Dickensesque language brought into the 21st century). Of course this stems from speeding up the transmission of messages when texting or typing. Some are simple contractions, such as 'soz' for 'sorry' and 'luv' which is an old contraction from way back. I find the adoption of 'u' for 'you' interesting as u is the Dutch word for you and for a few shifts in history we could be using that. Such contractions even begin to evolve their own grammar, so 'ur' stems from 'you' and means 'your', as in the Pink album title, 'U + Ur Hand'. Of course not all texting is about words and even the oldest mobile phone users will recognise :-) and many ;-) though XD might be more of a challenge. So, for many, symbols are now mixed in with words, taking us back to a semi-hieroglyphic form of English.

Young people have always sought to use slang and even code languages both to mark them out from parents and to have a sense of belonging with others in their peer group. Pig Latin, is probably the most enduring one, but there are thousands of local varieties. Such a language was an element in an episode of 'Wallander', the Swedish detective series, I was watching recently, giving a little challenge to the subtitler. However, I believe that the current mutation of the English spoken in Britain is going deeper than that. In some ways it is based on social class with adult working class people adopting the text speak that middle class adults leave to their children. We are not at the stage of Imperial Russia in which the nobles spoke French and only the peasants Russian, but you can mark yourself out in British society by the language you use. Of course, this has always been a form of segregation. My father always quoted sayings about how an Englishman defines himself by the way he speaks. There is RP - Received Pronunciation, the upper class, South-East England accent which for decades was all that was permitted to be heard on British broadcasts. In more democratic times things have shifted and a few years back it was noted how even the Queen had moved towards so-called 'Estuary English', stemming from the cadences of Essex, where the estuary of the River Thames is located.

Having spoken to a woman back in the mid-1990s who was researching the impact of Arabic on French used in urban France, it is noticeable that British English is not mutating that way. We seem to have had our influx of Hindi words more than a century ago and there is no flow now of Urdu or Arabic or Polish phrases, perhaps because Britain has always had such a diversity of immigrants and not concentrated from a particular region as happens in France due to its intimate connection with North Africa. However, in the UK in our changing language we are now moving beyond pronunciation to grammar shifts. These seem prompted not just by simplification of the language for ease of use in speech and technology, but because errors are beginning to stick and become what is now seen as the proper approach.

One that has been developing now for quite a while, is 'I could of won the match if I had tried harder'. In this sentence it should be 'I could have won ...' with have defining the tense and the emphasis of the verb. This has come about simply because of and have, let alone 'ave sound so similar that people mixe them up. Now they write that way. The sense is not really lost but there is no way to explain why you would use 'of' at all in the sentence. Less tortuous, but perhaps bizarre is the appearance of what was once called the 'grocers' apostrophe'. The fact that could have been 'grocers apostrophe' or 'grocer's apostrophe' begins to show some of the difficulty. I was told at school that in Tudor times a man would write: 'Henry Brown, his book' and over time this evolved into 'Henry Brown's book' with the apostrophe after Brown showing the dropping of the 'hi' from his. I am sceptical of this explanation partly because I learnt German and in their possessive cases they often have -s on the end of a possessive noun or adjective. It also does not explain why it never became 'Elizabeth Tudor'r book' for women. I can understand that over time, to speed things up, people would drop the apostrophe and say 'Henry Browns book', but whilst this has happened in many cases of popular usage, the application of the apostrophe has now been added to plurals instead. This brings us back to the grocers, because it was first seen in signs advertising egg's, cheese's, cauliflower's and so on. In some cases, notably, potato's or tomato's it could be acceptable to point to the missing 'e' though that was not the intention. I realised that this unneccessary use of apostrophes in plurals had come into mainstream usage in 1998 when, in the Cabinet Office, in London I came across a report on the work of different government departments. It was a very glossy publication which would have cost you £50 if you had chosen to buy it and there I saw such apostropheed plurals. If it was being used at the highest government level then the rest of us need to get in line. The clearest swap has come in the anomaly that is it's and its. Its is like his and hers, it is a possessive pronoun, but of course, in the past people expected possessives to be made with a 's as in Henry's book. So, it was very common for them to use it's instead. However, it's is in fact a contraction of 'it is', with the apostrophe showing where the 'i' once was. With the disappearance of apostrophes to show missing letters and didnt, cant, etc. becoming words in their own right the switch of its and it's is now complete.

The problem, of course, is in contrast to France and Germany where the government and its appointed bodies make declarations on language usage, whether you can have three 's' in the middle of a German word and how much music should be sung in French on the radio no-one in Britain makes any ruling. This is where the key problem, confusion. If I read 'the girl's coughing' now, is it about the coughing of one girl; a joint activity by a number of girls or is it about the very immediate occurrence, i.e. 'the girl is coughing' with the 'i' simply dropped rather than something more continuous? Of course, a lot of language is contextual and that is possibly why the class issue creeps in. When working at a warehouse a man once told me, in a calm tone, that he was going to 'fucking fuck that fuck' which meant he was going to unload his lorry. Of course, that phrase in anger might have meant he was going to beat up someone or he was going to win a race or a score of other issues. However, standing by the lorry he had driven in, the context made more or less it clear, though still he might have set off to beat up someone who had cut him up or something and used the same phrase. Communication, though is not about the instance, it is about a broader usage. While we may use it to emphasise the exclusivity of our group, it is actually more vital in allowing us to get comprehension from those beyond our own group. While we get by day-to-day, there must be thousands of cases when clarity was needed and instead there was confusion. I am not saying we should or can stop English evolving, but once in a while we need someone to clarify what is the baseline. I never liked American spelling, but I now feel that simplifying English, especially now that so much of it is taught through phonics rather than visually, could only help not just newcomers to the language but us who have been using it for decades and want to ensure we are understood and can understand what is being written to us. In addition, there may be other benefits, because it is often argued that the British are so poor with other languages because they find their own one so difficult.

P.P. 24/07/2009: One thing I neglected to mention is the disappearance of silent letters from writing English. To some extent, I suppose this is overdue, the most common examples I have seen recently are 'wich' rather than 'which' and 'wat' in the place of 'what'. Of course 'wot' for 'what' has been a common element of the grafittier's vocabulary for many decades, but 'wat' seems a bit more elegant and has the example of Wat Tyler, though in this case it seems to be a variant, perhaps a contraction of Walter and ironically means 'commander of the army', so in fact in the context of Wat Tyler (1341-81; full name Walter) a leader of the Peasants' Revolt of England in 1381, it might have been a title rather than his real name.

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