13 May 2006

Language

After writing the post below, I got to thinking. Go read that one. Then come back.

I wouldn't want anyone to think that I subscribe to the idea of 'proper English'. I don't.

I have a friend who's much older than me. When he was young he was told to speak 'the Queen's English'. But is this really about speaking the same language as the Queen? Or is it more about speaking the form of English that people of his parents' generation were familiar with?

Australia for a long time tried to be like a piece of England that had been set adrift. Part of the mechanism for this was denigrating any other forms of English. But language is a living thing. It grows and changes. It evolves. Unless it's a dead language like Latin. Or a stillborn one like Esperanto.

When groups of people leave the 'motherland', wherever that may be, they take with them the form of their language that they know. Often they keep that form, while the country they left behind changes - and so does it's language. Australia has many remnants of a form of English that's no longer spoken, and now seem perculiarly Australian. At the same time, words have entered into the Australian lingo that aren't from England at all. The Australian accent in some places bears the remains of Cockney because of our convict history (this shows especially in our rhyming slang). In other places it's a touch more Scottish. Where I come from, it's a very 'proper' form of English. People I meet when I travel around Australia often don't think I'm Australian at all - especially if I'm travelling in the company of a Westie from Sydney.

This brings us to the Americans. I've read in a couple of places that the American accent derives in a large part from the time that America was settled. This means that if you took a modern English speaker from England, and a modern English speaker from the US, and put them both in a time machine and sent them to Shakespearian England - the American would sound more like Shakespeare than the English person would. In terms of accent, at least.

And Shakespeare is the classic example of the evolution of language. It would be folly to try to calcify language and keep it forever the same - it's virtually impossable. The people whinging about the corruption of the English language by youth are fighting a losing battle. But they fight it just the same, because they aren't comfortable with modern usages.

I must admit here, that I'm not comfortable with some modern usages, and some changes. But that is because they are unfamiliar to me - I didn't grow up with them, and occasionally I don't understand them. It's not because I think that English should always and forever more sound and look exactly the same as when I grew up. Words change their meanings, and new words emerge. Spoken language changes a lot faster than written language - which is why I can understand this, even though I find it hard to read. I may not like it, but I can't stop it. That's also why I don't get the shits up with young Aussies who write ass instead of arse. I could bitch about it, if I wanted to waste my breath. But I don't. American English is just as valid as Australian English or the Queens English or Aboriginal English.

I still think it's useful to learn to write with commonly accepted spelling and grammar - for the same reason that it's useful to learn table manners, even if 99% of the time you eat in front of the TV with the plate on your lap. Some day, for some reason, you might need to know.

10 comments:

Stinkypaw said...

Touché my dear!

hasarder said...

Aw, stinkypaw - I didn't write this in response to your comment, in case you were wondering. I actually posted it and THEN saw your comment! I responded to your's in the thing below.

Stinkypaw said...

Huum, hasarder - I guess my comment on this post "got lost in translation"... I was simply agreeing with what you said in the last paragraph of your post. Oh well...

hasarder said...

Touché to you stinkypaw. I've encountered this before.

For the french, touché means something like 'you got it right' or 'you understood'. But over here it translates more to something like 'you got one over me'. Often one person will make a comment, then someone else will refute it or make a better comment, and the first person will say 'touché' and slink away with their tail between their legs. Very different meaning here.

But I knew that! So why did I forget it? I just automatically thought of the English way instead of putting my brain into the French way. It's good, you are making me stretch my brain back into French mode. I like it.

Bisous!

hasarder said...

And Partner just pointed out that this is a fine illustration of my point - that language changes meaning over space and time.

Garfield said...

I like ur post. Its nice point of view which I agree with. We should try to keep written english the way it is.

Late Starter said...

'Touché' comes from fencing, where the object is to get past your opponent's guard and hit him/her with the tip of your 'sword'. You then claim 'Touché. I think :o)

I agree about language - it mutates over time. 'Nice' used to mean 'precise' but has now lost that meaning entirely. It's worth holding the line over some things such as punctuation, where unnecessary errors can badly obscure meaning, but as long as a language remains broadly understandable we should be broadly hapy about that.

I can never get used to the Amercan expression 'yard' to mean 'garden'. To me 'yard' means a competely paved and rather scruffy area, like a 'builder's yard'. I used to pity them for having no grass ;o)

hasarder said...

So we've worked out where it comes from, and how it's used colloquially.
But what does the word touché actually mean?

Stinkypaw?

My french dictionary says toucher is to touch. So touch with a 'sword', to touch on the point, to touch the truth...?

Late Starter - I had a problem with the English use of 'garage'. To us it's a place where you park your car. To my English housemate it was the place down the road, which we call a 'servo' or service station (or petrol station). Every time he said he was going to the garage I wanted to say, "but we don't have a garage at this house!"

Maegen said...

Then where do you park your car at your house? In the yard? teehee, kidding.

I love LOVE LOVE how languages change. I guess sometimes it's sad and a loss, particularly when it's being overrun by English (and let me just interject that as an American teaching in Europe, Brittish English is MUCH more common here! My text books have words I don't know sometimes!) I'll rephrase. I LOVE how English changes!

The part of America I'm from has a strong accent, and perhaps it's own dialect: southern. Some people think it's backward. Some people can't hear it with out thinking about the attitude, beliefs, problems, or stereotypes the South carries (or they carry toward the South). The truth is, Southern is one of the least changed uses of English in America. Where else is "kin" used? nowhere in America. Of course I can't remember other examples, but between vocabulary and pronunciation, I think you'll find that Southern is the most like British English of any American accent/dialect.

As long as cultures change, so will language. And as long as we can understand eachother langauage is doing it's job!

Kev said...

Me, an Englishman who lived in Australia for 12 years and now is back in the old country, who was married to am American and works in a bank with about 15 different nationalities. I love the way different English speaking cultures change the language and different nationalities speaking the language transform it too.

There are some great ways of expressing yourself in American usuage and in Australia usage that just make the queens English seem stuffy and inadequate.

Language is alive, and it is not interested in divisions like the queen's english. Grammar and spelling and the common understood use of language are important only so far as they allow a lot of different people using a form of communication find some common ground and connect. But everyone has to accept that even the common ground moves on as people use the language do.

Even some mistakes can create a poetic and charmingly different way of seeing an idea. I have a polish colleague who when she does not know a word works with the langauge to frame it. For example "Easter", which she could not remember the name of, became "Holiday with Rabbit", the sudden sound of the testing of the emergency tannoy at our workplace became "important voice from nowhere".

This is the language living differently too to my mind, even if it is someone learning the language trying to improve their vocabulary, and quite frankly I prefer her way of describing these things. Henceforth, I will always think of Easter as "holiday with Rabbit" because it makes me smile and is cheeky and fun, while the word "Easter" just feels like another noun.

Thanks for dropping by the blog by the way, sorry it took me so long to visit you back and I am glad I did, it not only is a fun and thoughtful blog, but it bring me back to the my second home Country, and the one I would rather be in right now, that grey old England

best

Kev