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A Short History of a Global Language.
(TRIGGER WARNING: Some of what follows could cause high blood pressure, nose bleeds and red haze in sensitive individuals.)
Some people get terribly heated about the English language – its use and abuse, falling standards, the wreckage of the language of the Bible and Shakespeare upon the altar of txtspk, and the general moral collapse of society being brought about by split infinitives and glottal stops.
Others, not so much. (Deliberate sentence fragment: specifically intended to upset those of a grammatically nervous disposition.)
If you attempt to identify when, exactly, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells believes the English language was set in aspic, never to change again, you’ll usually discover it was when they left school. ‘The English I learned at school is the only proper English.’ End of discussion.
Not true of course, and in this wonderfully concise and entertaining little book – which can be read in just a handful of hours – Simon Horobin explains why.
He starts out by asking a question – What is English? – which outwardly seems a very straightforward question with a very straightforward answer, as given by Samuel Johnson: ‘Belonging to England; thence English is the language of England’. But as Horobin quickly goes on to demonstrate, that answer – although true in 1755 – is far too simplistic now.
In the following chapters he first of all describes the origins of English as we understand them today – from its beginnings deep in the Proto-Indo-European family tree, through Proto-Germanic into Western Germanic, where it now nestles companionably with German, Dutch, Frisian and Flemish, alongside its Scandinavian first cousins. Then he sets off on a fascinating journey through the many twists and turns by which Old English became – via the Great Vowel Shift, among other things – the Standard English which we know and bicker about so endlessly today.
How English Became English isn’t just the history of a language though: it’s a story of class, elitism and social anxiety leavened with a hefty dose of nostalgia – not to mention a fear of the common herd. It holds a mirror up to the English-speaking world that doesn’t always reflect back a entirely attractive image.
Along the way, Horobin examines where many of our most cherished and obsessively observed ‘rules’ – such as not splitting infinitives, not using they as a third person singular pronoun and the ‘correct’ use of less and fewer – originated, and how foolish and inextricably linked to social status so many of them are. We also learn why the past tense of go is went but the past tense of walk is walked, the surprising history of the Greengrocer’s Apostrophe and why religiously sticking to prescriptive grammar rules, no matter what, will make you sound like a butler.
While the points he makes are entirely serious, you still get the distinct feeling that his tongue is never very far from his cheek, as if he knows what he’s likely to be doing to the prescriptivists’ blood pressure. Nor is he beyond skewering the likes of grammar guru N M Gwynne with this exquisitely honed barb:
N M Gwynne overtly links mastery of English grammar with a solid foundation in the Latin language, advising his readers to turn next to a Latin primer, which is now conveniently available in Gwynne’s Latin. (2014).
At the end of the 16th century, there were an estimated five to seven million native English speakers. By the early twenty-first century, that figure has ballooned to 450 million, triggered largely by the colonization of North America. That the language would change as it spread around the globe was inevitable, and expecting it to stop changing for no better reason than that you want it to, is foolish. It’s achieved its world dominance because of its ability to mug other languages, societies and cultures, take what it wants and then move on. As it has spread around the world, bits of it have splintered off as pidgins and creoles. It can be argued that Tok Pisin – one of the three official languages in Papua New Guinea – is no longer English at all, in spite of having started life as a pidgin. Something similar is happening in Singapore, where Singlish seems to be developing into a distinctive language in its own right, despite the best efforts of the Singapore authorities to stamp it out.
The Prescriptivist –v- Descriptivist battle (ie: those who want the language nailed down and formalized versus those who are happy to watch it mugging its way around the world) is unlikely to go away, partly because Prescriptivists are a tenacious bunch who won’t let go, but also because nobody with any sense would deny that children need to be taught Standard English so that they can use it correctly when they have to – when applying for jobs for instance, or dealing with bureaucracy, or indeed in any circumstances where making themselves completely understood is of paramount importance. The answer lies in teaching them the ‘correct’ usage without smothering the regional differences and characteristics which make English such a vibrant, living creature.
Simon Horobin plainly loves the English language and the way its past can still be read within today’s vocabulary, grammar and syntax if you know where and how to look.
And rather wonderfully it still contains mysteries, like adjectival order.
JRR Tolkien told W H Auden that his lifelong interest in philology (the study of words) was triggered at the age of seven when his mother told him he couldn’t start a story with ‘the green great dragon’, it had to be ‘the great green dragon’. All native English speakers instinctively know the correct order for adjectives – but no-one knows why or how that order was arrived at.
‘I wondered why,’ Tolkien wrote to Auden in 1955, by which time he was Professor of English Language at Oxford University, ‘and I still do.’
This review has only skimmed the surface of the book, which packs a huge amount of information into its one hundred and sixty-some pages. I haven’t even touched on English in the social media, the way word meanings morph over time and how some ultra-modern practices – like verbing nouns – aren’t modern at all. I don’t think it’s likely to convert anyone who foams at the mouth at the mere sight almost unique (another subject touched upon) or goes into conniptions when someone uses enormity to convey hugeness, but for those – like me – who are a bit more laid back about the whole thing, it’s a joy to read from beginning to end.
‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,’ says Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. Well, my grammar-geek friends, it’s not inconceivable that one day, whether you like it or not, it will.
Oxford University Press. 2016. ISBN: 978-0-19-875427-5. 175pp.