The language of invention
Pinehurst II, Pinehurst Road, Farnborough Business Park, Farnborough, Hampshire GU14 7BF Telephone 01252 555072 www.countrylife.co.uk
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