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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

United by an Uncommon Language / Part 1

The "look up" dictionary on my Amazon Kindle has turned me into a much slower reader. I can't seem to resist clicking out to every single word I'm curious about. But if it now takes me twice as long to read an article or book, I find it twice as engrossing.

I've been interested in etymology for as long as I can remember. I was an English major in college and proceeded to study literature and politics in the UK. During the latter experience, I took it upon myself to figure out why George Bernard Shaw (among others) had quipped that the U.S. and the UK are separated by a common language. For a word nerd like me, England was the Land of Linguistic Chills, Thrills and Excitement. In particular, I enjoyed:

1) Vocabulary challenges on BBC Radio 4. Who knew word games could be such a hoot? My all-time favorite was Just a Minute, the panel game where players must talk for sixty seconds on a given subject "without repetition, hesitation or deviation." (Hmmm ... sounds a little like blogging!) In my day, Clement Freud (Sigmund's grandson) was a regular competitor. He kept the other panelists on their toes with his virtuoso command of English coupled with a mercurial wit. For instance, when asked to talk for one minute about tripe, he responded:
I think it is proper to say that taramasalata is the biggest sexual stimulant that we have in the western world. A man in Newport Pagnall ate his own weight of this confection of smoked cod's row, lemon juice, sunflower oil, spices, herbs and...
(At this point, he was challenged for hesitation — and for talking tripe!)

2) The Queen's English Society. Actually, I didn't find out about the Queen's English Society until recently. But the QES has made the list because of the pleasure I took in the UK in meeting the sort of people who might belong to the QES: who care passionately about correct and elegant English usage. I'm only sorry I can't be in the UK now for the QES's latest campaign to "protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation," to be spearheaded by an Academy of English. There are those who find this initiative patronizing and pathetic: patronizing because of the belief that England should be in charge of what is now the global lingua franca; pathetic because of the attempt to use language to restore Britain's declining world status. But I don't agree. Maybe it's my long exposure to Japlish, but I'm glad to see someone holding up the side in an age where emoticons, acronyms, and other irritating examples of textese are creeping in willy nilly. And I've found studies to back up this opinion, such as the one showing that SMS messaging, though faster to write, takes more time to read than normal English. LOL !

3) Saxonists. Likewise, England was the first time I encountered the sort of people who pay attention to the proportion of Anglo-Saxon to Latinate words in their sentences. English (as you probably know, if you've gotten this far in the post) is distinguished for having many words with identical meanings that appear in two forms — one derived from Latin and one derived from Anglo-Saxon:
The incendiary device exterminated twenty citizens.
vs.
The bomb killed twenty people.
- - -
I adjourned to the sitting room and perused the morning paper.
vs.
I went into the sitting room and read the morning paper.
In his famous polemic "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell pointed out that we English speakers tend to resort to Latinate words whenever we have an urge to obfuscate or gloss over the truth, dress up simple statements, or avoid expressing an opinion:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones . . .
A word or two more on this Saxonism business. I subscribe to it myself — using Saxon words as the building blocks for my sentences and tossing in the odd Latinate word for variety. There are times, however, when I find this preference for originally and etymologically English words over words from alien sources a little unsettling. And I'm not the only one to have felt this way. The late, great lexicographer Robert Burchfield once referred to the quest for Saxonisms as "an unrealizable nationalistic dream."
Minted in Italy @ 49 BC

Maybe it's because I've become preoccupied with xenophobia of late, but I ask you: where would we be if the Romans hadn't introduced elephantus into the vocabulary? Hmm ... On second thought, that may be a poor choice of example. It turns out Caesar literally introduced the elephantus when he invaded Britain. As one ancient writer recorded:
Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over.
Orwell wrote another famous essay about shooting an elephant, in which the slowly dying elephant serves as an emblem of everything that is wrong with imperialism, suggesting it will ultimately fade and (though it may take a long time) die.

Historical linguists could tell us for sure, but doesn't imperialism linger forever in language? The Romans may have entered British territory with an elephant in tow, but the elephant they left behind — that of the Latin language — has proved far more significant. That particular beast refused to perish, especially after the Normans invaded, bringing in still more Latinate words.

(As a sidebar, I wonder if the early Brits couldn't believe their luck when pompous officials of church and state, not to mention academics, declared their intention to make Latin their special province? As Orwell so clearly demonstrated, the language of Imperial Rome suits the bureaucratic mindset to a T.)
COMING SOON: Part II of this post, in which I report on some of the best (and worst) features of attempting to learn the Japanese language, which not for nothing has earned the epithet of the devil's tongue (this from a Jesuit missionary, who had every incentive to master it!). Until then, I am abandoning the realm of philology post-haste to spend more time with my Kindle ...

Questions: Do you, too, value England as the keeper of the flame for the English language? And am I being paranoid, or does our Mother Tongue sometimes have a xenophobic flavor?

9 comments:

Kate said...

Xenophobic? No, I don't think so. A language which so readily adopts words from another if the situation seems right cannot be xenophobic. Brits might scoff at Americans' predilection for inventing verbs out of nouns (hospitalize, etc) but that doesn't stop them using those words. (Because of this openmindedness to other English dialects, we also don't need subtitles on American films. Unlike vice versa.)

This attitude is quite different from that of the French, in particular the French-Canadians in 1976.

According to Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue", the Commission de Surveillance de la Langue Francaise enforced laws which, among other things, banned non-French languages on commercial signs, and required French to be the workplace language for any company employing more than 50 people. 'Merry Christmas' banners were taken down, and 15,000 Dunkin Donuts bags were confiscated.

Latin words vs. Anglo-Saxon words, the former being used by officialdom -- according to Mother Tongue, which was published in 1990, in Luxembourg people use French at school, German for reading newspapers, and a Germanic dialect, Luxemburgish, at home. Paraguay -- business in Spanish, but jokes in Guarani. So perhaps our use of Latin words in a business context is the same. It can be overdone, though, and that's where the Plain English Campaign comes in. They give out an annual award, the Foot In Mouth Award, for "a baffling comment by a public figure." In 1994, Gordon Brown won it with a speech that went:

"ideas which stress the growing importance of international co-operation and new theories of economic sovereignty across a wide range of areas, macro-economics, trade, the environment, the growth of post neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the symbiotic relationships between government and investment in people and infrastructures - a new understanding of how labour markets really work and constructive debate over the meaning and implications of competitiveness at the level of individuals, the firm or the nation and the role of government in fashioning modern industrial policies which focus on nurturing competitiveness."

Quite.

But do I value England as the keeper of the flame for the English language? Absolutely. If the namesake won't do it, who will? I despair at the textspeak that is creeping its way into the language. I despair at words which worm their way in, purely through their own frequent misuse by people who don't know any better. ('Irregardless', I fear, will become one of these words.) I know English is a Living, Breathing Language -- I just don't see why it has to be given the kiss of life by people who don't know where to put an apostrophe.

Jeffrey said...

I, too, was an English major in college ("reading for credit"), and have enough a of a stick up my, er, backside, that I still cringe every time I hear "normalcy" substituted for normality, "healthy" for healthful and impact used as a verb. I'm certain that our 13-year old daughter understands this completely and so purposely tortures me with crap language and textese.

About twenty years ago, this sickness prompted me to start compiling a "humorous" guide to bad katakana-go (a language in no way to be confused with Japanese or any other language where a "loan word" might have originated). Alas, my work load finally increased so that I no longer could spend the better part of my day working on the project and now I suspect much of what was common currency then is now probably "dead language" as slang and such in Old Japan changes so rapidly.

I will say this, though, about the English's silly worries concerning "Saxon" words: English has been a polyglot sieve of a language for about 2,000 years. If the "native speakers" of that green and pleasant land are really serious about preserving what they consider the "mother tongue," then why don't they all still speak like Chaucer wrote? Or, at the very least, forsooth, as did Shakespeare?

ML Awanohara said...

@Kate: LOL about the confiscation of the 15,000 Dunkin Donuts bags. (While I agree on the textspeak, for some unfathomable reason I have a soft spot for "LOL" -- can you jolly me out of it?)

The French are definitely much more extreme--something they have in common with the Japanese, as I hope to show in Part II. (Is that part of the reason why the Japanese admire the French so much?)

Nevertheless, I think it's curious that English has so many words with identical meanings that appear in two forms, Latinate and Anglo Saxon. I'm not a linguist so don't have the answers, but I wonder why we've kept these two vocabulary tiers going for so long, what we've actually gained from it?

The Foot in Mouth Award? It's the first time I've heard of it. I love it, esp as I note they have honored our own George W. Bush w/ a Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to gobbledegook, including: "I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe – I believe what I believe is right." And to think he managed to produce something that convoluted using mostly plain words!!!

Over here, the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature used to hold an annual Bad Writing Contest to celebrate "the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years." (I wonder: did they stop because they were so overwhelmed with entries, they couldn't put the journal out?)

In a typical year, the winning entries had been produced by well-known, highly-paid experts who had no doubt labored for years to write in that manner--as evidenced by the fact that their words had been published by distinguished presses and academic journals.

Here for example is a winner produced by philosopher Judith Butler, alleged to be one of the ten smartest people on the planet:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

You and I both despair at the textspeak creeping into the language. But at the other end of the spectrum we have to battle against the notion that writing in a clear, jargon-free manner is an indicator of being an ignoramus.

It seems to me that however one looks at it, these are not the best of times for plain-language advocates. (Out of respect for our topic, I shall refrain from adding a sad-face emoticon.)

Elephant's Eye said...

As a South African librarian working in Switzerland, I was disconcerted to see books identified on the back of the title page, as being written in, or translated from, American. But perhaps we should rise to the challenge and agree with German speakers, that English and American (and Canadian, Australian, South African English) are indeed different languages. In Europe just a tiny geographical distance lands you in a whole other language. With dialects and variations in turn!

ML Awanohara said...

@Jeffrey: In addition to the fashionable and trendy, were you also compiling examples of katakanago in public documents, such as manpawaa (manpower), fakutaa (factor), sanpuring (sampling), and pairotto sutadii (pilot study)? No wonder you couldn't manage that and your day job!

On a related note: Do Japanese bureaucrats have any limits on how convoluted they are willing to go? It seems not ...

Returning to the English language: as you say, it's been a "polyglot sieve" for 2,000 years. But I find it interesting that when we want to say something simple, clear and direct (e.g., President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address), we tend to use a high proportion of the original Anglo-Saxon words, not words derived from Latin.

Does that mean our linguistic forefathers (and mothers) resisted fully absorbing the language of their conquerors, or did they have an aversion to Latin because they thought it suited the bureaucratic mindset (ie, not communicating clearly)? I don't pretend to know the answer but am genuinely curious ...

ML Awanohara said...

@Elephant's Eye: Your story makes me think of an incident where a young Korean-American woman told me her family used to be Catholic but now they were Christian. I thought to myself, did I miss something? Since when was the Catholic Church not considered Christian, and indeed the Mother Church?

Perhaps because I was raised a Catholic, I can't say I approve of all of these "tongues"--American, Canadian, Australian, South African--branching off on their own. But perhaps I should defer to non-native English speakers on this question. Just as the Korean-American woman did not originate from a Christian culture, do those from non-English-speaking cultures find it useful to categorize English according to pronunciation and word choice?

Peter said...

I think this is very interesting. Isn't it true, though, that one thing you're more conscious of in England is the variety of local dialects/accents? The range of spoken English is much wider close to the original source than it is in North America. Of course, the range is much smaller than it was before the days of tv, radio, and national primary education. Still, I notice sometimes when people are shown talking in regional UK accents on American tv, the producers sometimes put in subtitles. Much of the imperialism in language consists of the metropolitan center (London/Midlands, Paris, Florence) spreading at the expense of less prestigious local dialects.

ML Awanohara said...

@Peter: When I was reading your comment, I suddenly thought about how civil wars are usually bloodier and last much longer than international conflicts. Likewise, perhaps we expend more energy on pointing out inferior word usage/pronunciation among English speakers, than on discriminating against words from the outside.

Also, those who use foreign(-derived) words are often seen as learned, sophisticated, or cool--well, up to a point. If it gets to be too much, then a George Orwell effect sets in, and we see it as pretentious: why can't this person speak in plain English?

BTW, Japanese, too, do this, as I hope to show in my next post. For me, this rather striking similar argues in favor of Chomsky and others who believe that languages share the same underlying concepts, though I understand this thesis is now being contested again.

Sabrina said...

This post is great! Thanks so much for putting it out there. I had to chuckle when I was reading the comment from "Peter". After living in the UK for nearly a year, I am still amazed at the different dialects/accents!

Hope you are well!!

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