22 December 2008

Changing language

I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty, and witty and gay,
And I pity
Any girl who isn’t me today.

Back in the early 1960s that song, from the musical West Side Story, was quite popular.It was played on the radio, and people hummed and sang it a lot.

It was especially popular among my gay friends at the time, and they sang it with, um, gay abandon, as a pun.

Now, however, the double entendre has been lost. I don't think anyone nowadays would write a song using "gay" in that sense; it would probably be misunderstood by most of those who heard it, and could no longer be used as a pun.

I bought a second-hand copy of Chaucer's poems recently and have been reading them, a few pages at a time, and that got me thinking about how language changes. One of the difficulties of reading Chaucer, of course is the spelling. Even familiar words are sometimes hard to recognise because of the unfamiliar spelling. The meaning of unfamiliar words can sometimes be worked out from the context, but at other times I have to resort to the footnotes.

I have no difficulty in reading books published 100 years ago. Books published in the middle of the 19th century present few difficulties, apart from occasional allusions to features of contemporary culture that are unknown today. One phrase still puzzles me from that period. Newpaper reports and death announcements often referred to "interesting children". "Daisy Smith, an interesting child, was accidentally drowned at a family picnic last week." If anyone knows what "interesting child" meant to the writers of such reports, please let me know.

Early 19th-century literature presents few problems. Much of Jane Austen and William Hazlitt's writing looks as if it could have been written today.

Mid-eighteenth=century literature is quite easy to understand, though there are turns of phrase and elements of style that look unfamiliar. Boswell, in his Life of Dr Johnson uses "that" followed by a comma as we use "which" today. Dr Johnson, of course, compiled the dictionary that did much to standardise English spelling, and that is what makes literature in subsequent periods easier for us to read.

A century earlier, Pepys's diary and the writings of Jonathan Swift can be understood, though there are more obscure allusions, and turns of phrase that wouldn't be understood today. Some modern editions have updated spelling, to make them easier to read. The Book of common prayer dates from this period too.

Go back half a century, and you have the King James Bible, though it too is often published with updated spellings. Until about the 1950s or so it was familiar to most English-speaking people, and perhaps helped to keep older versions of English alive for many. Even if they were not part of people's active vocabulary, there were many things that people understood. Though the language was archaic, even for the time, it often made more sense to 20th-century readers than the contemporary writing of Shakespeare.

Reading backward in time is one thing, but reading forward is another.

Most of the words used by Hazlitt, for example, are part of English today, and so we can read Hazlitt without difficulty. But what would Hazlitt have made of 21st-century English?

I wonder, too, how long the backward compatibility (would Hazlitt have understood that?) of English will last. After 300 years the Book of Common Prayer has been abandoned, along with the King James Bible, and the Coverdale psalms in the BCP were a century older. And now many words are being removed from dictionaries. As one could speak of a "pre-Johnson era", perhaps we are entering a post-Johnson era.

Jonathan at Thicket and Thorp drew my attention to this article, which describes how many words have been removed from a children's dictionary:

Some of the words removed: mistletoe, goblin, altar, bishop, monastery, monk, psalm, saint, sin, duchess, duke, decade, heron, kingfisher, lark, ox, oyster, thrush, weasel, apricot, ash, county, cowslip, fern, hazelnut, primrose, sheaf, walnut, willow.

And some included: Blog, voicemail, attachment, database, cut and paste, celebrity, creep, citizenship, EU, brainy, boisterous, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, biodegradable, dyslexic, food chain, trapezium, alliteration, curriculum, classify, block graph.

And to think that we read nursery rhymes to our children about "One old Oxford ox opening oysters"!

The point of a dictionary, or at least one of the points, is that one can find the meanings of unfamiliar words that one comes across for the first time. Many of the words removed have to do with the countryside and rural life, which children brought up in cities might want to look up if they read about them in books. But today's harmless drudges seem to think that they should not be allowed to.

Which reminds me... a word that seems to enter the vocabulary of children within the first couple of weeks of starting school for the first time is "allowed". Perhaps that should be compulsory.

1 comment:

The young fogey said...

It was the era before verbose, well-meant politically correct euphemisms but I wonder if 'interesting' here meant what 'special' often does today.


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