The lan­guage of in­ven­tion

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Lan­guage sep­a­rates hu­mankind from beasts. Our devel­op­ment as a species would have been slow with­out it; we couldn’t have re­layed ex­pe­ri­ence down the gen­er­a­tions, al­low­ing one age to learn (in the­ory) the lessons of the past. To­day, the great world lan­guage is english and this na­tion can be a tiny bit proud of that (page 94).

english isn’t the only ve­hi­cle of cul­tural transmission, but it is the one in which sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers, doc­tors and re­searchers most com­monly speak to each other, en­abling the hu­man race to learn, dis­cover and in­vent ever faster. The lan­guage of Shake­speare and the King James Bi­ble is the lan­guage of the in­ter­net. It gives us a leg up.

We can’t take much credit for it—its global tri­umph sim­ply hap­pened, as a con­comi­tant of his­tory—but english has char­ac­ter­is­tics help­ful to mass adop­tion. It’s flex­i­ble; it has a har­lot’s love of change. To some stick­lers, the lin­guis­tic mu­ta­tion that it end­lessly pro­vides causes pro­found dis­tress, but they’re speak­ing the wrong lan­guage if they want rules and con­stancy. Let them try Ice­landic. Ice­landers find it quite easy to read sagas writ­ten by their fore­bears 1,000 years ago be­cause the lan­guage is recog­nis­ably the same. Old english, how­ever, is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble, ex­cept to schol­ars.

no­body could read even Chaucer flu­ently with­out prepa­ra­tion and his courtly Lon­don english is closer to the mod­ern lan­guage than the di­alects of other me­dieval lit­er­a­ture, such as the north-west Mid­lands of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Only about seven mil­lion peo­ple spoke english in Tu­dor times be­fore it came to be the lan­guage of Scotland, Ire­land, Wales and any­one hop­ing to make a success of life in the Bri­tish em­pire. The lin­guis­tic soup, in­clud­ing Latin, norse and nor­man French, be­came spiced with loan words from In­dia (ve­ran­dah, thug) and other colo­nial ter­ri­to­ries; amer­i­can english went its own way.

In the 18th cen­tury, Sa­muel John­son sought to stan­dard­ise a lan­guage he saw as un­ruly and un­couth and 19th-cen­tury pub­lic schools and the Rei­thian BBC continued the ef­fort, but english can’t be cab­ined and con­fined: it likes to throw off its corsets and mis­be­have.

We have re­tained spe­cial id­ioms and tropes—bri­tish hu­mour is largely ver­bal— and, in the best jour­nal­ism, we’re ca­pa­ble of pithi­ness and wit, but the coun­try that gave english to the world has ar­guably now lost con­trol of it. Per­haps that’s its strengh, how­ever—in com­put­ing terms, it’s open source, for any­one to make use of as they please. Our end­lessly evolv­ing, pa­tois-rich lan­guage typ­i­fies our open­ness as a na­tion, what­ever Brexit may bring. Cheers!

‘English can’t be cab­ined and con­fined; it likes to throw off its corsets

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