Wednesday, 20 November 2013

You Had Me At "Hlo"

“Language is my whore, my mistress, my wife, my pen-friend, my check-out girl. Language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple, it's the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning sun when you pull from an old bookshelf a forgotten volume of erotic diaries; language is the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer shorts, it's a half-remembered childhood birthday party, a creak on the stair, a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, the warm wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl, cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.” 
― Stephen Fry

Someone very wise once said that language's greatest strength is its ability to evolve- a trait that it has exhibited by the bucketful for centuries past. Nobody really has a certain idea about where language originated, but linguists and philologists have for years been speculating on the meek and hazy beginnings of the spoken word.

A number of theories dominate popular belief, however what most researchers have agreed on, is that language came from the association of sound to certain visual stimuli. These associations created meaning.
Over the years, as cultures diverged and various peoples migrated to unexplored parts of the world to behold things that had never been seen before, they developed new sounds, new associations- new languages. It would probably be safe to assume that language evolved much like the human race did- in a logical order, best suited for the conditions in which it had to survive.

Language has always been one of my primary loves. Coming from a country that has, over the centuries, amassed a rich and opulent culture, and what can only be described as a bright-hued palette of languages, I find it mildly embarrassing and not a little strange to admit to being truly proficient in only one. It is also fairly ironic that the language I am most comfortable with is one that was brought to my countrymen in a rather unattractive visage, by an alien culture- and accompanied by years of slavery, robbery and colonialism. You win some, you lose some, I always say.

The 2013 statistic, updated in November, says that English is the third most-spoken language in the world, following Mandarin and Spanish. It has the largest vocabulary of any existing language. It also happens to be one of the few things I care about. (All in one, huh?)

Picking out landmarks in literary time, take Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shaw and Chetan Bhagat as loci, and you have a perfect map of how the landscape of language has changed over years and years of writing and speech.

Now, for someone who prides herself in being open and, for lack of a better insult, 'modern', I recently realised that when it comes to English, I instantaneously become one of those intolerable stuffy bastards who invoke Jesus' name every five seconds, and cannot tolerate anything being contrary to the Bible's instructions. You know the type- they always have the top comment on YouTube videos of The Ellen Degeneres Show, which reads something like "Pls don't be homosexual! Jesus will punish you and you will go to Hell!".

Well, I essentially am a linguistic equivalent of those. Frightening, isn't it? Although I prefer the Oxford English to the Bible, the two are so similar in principle that I feel ill at ease every time I think about it too much. I suppose, then, that putting my fears up on a public forum is the new-generation form of escapism.

The thing is, every time someone uses the wrong conjunction (which is often, believe me) or an incorrect derivative, or just the wrong word- I feel the compelling need to circle them three times in an anti-clockwise fashion and sprinkle them with holy water, while chanting, "Forgive them, lord, for they know not what they do."

All this, and I only just realised how terrible it is. I wondered, whilst sipping a terrible cup of coffee at my workplace and staring into space as I often do, who is a true lover of language? One who feels the need to be smothered under layers and layers of rules and regulations and feels the constant need to keep it 'correct', so to speak, or one who understands its essential nature of change, and enjoys it in all its forms?

Perhaps it is the latter. The essential elasticity of language has always been its greatest virtue- and had it not been this liberal, it wouldn't have had half the words in its vocabulary that it does now. Joy, bump, marketyard- one a borrowed word from the French joie, one a completely made-up word by a semi-famous poet, one an amalgamation of two words to form a single one that conveys all the meaning it needs to, without using up unnecessary space. (i.e., 'marketyard' as opposed to 'the yard in the market') It really is quite brilliant. And I suppose that's why it's alright to say things like "I'll go karofy that now." (A frightening thing I heard someone say the other day) instead of "I'll go DO it." It is a merger of sorts, after all. And that's why the Oxford Dictionary expands every year- to allow the English language to grow and flourish like it has been for years.

I read somewhere, recently, that with text-messaging becoming the new-wave of communication, there's an entirely new language developing. I don't mean just condensations of words (What's to wt's), but also entirely new meanings attached to words that have always existed. You know how, in the days of non-QWERTY phones, there was the Dictionary option, where you had to type out the word and then choose from a selection of possible things you may have typed out, the word you meant? Right. So when you typed 'cool', it automatically became 'book'. And because no-one bothered to correct it, it became accepted colloquial terminology. So in some parts of the world, 'book' now means cool.

Frightening. I suppose all it takes is a little getting used to. Just like religion, animal sacrifice and marriage rituals. On second thought, maybe not marriage rituals. You hear about hundreds of languages dying out every year because nobody uses them any longer, and you might be thankful that English does not share their snobbery. It is willing to change. Now if only we'd (I'd) let it.

Either way, I don't think I'm ever getting used to this:

2 b, or nt 2 b–tht is = ?:
Wether ’tis nbler in da mynd 2 sffr
Da slings N arrows ov outragus 4toon
Or 2 tke rms agst a C of trubles
N by opposin end dem. 2 die, 2 sleep–
No mre–n by a sleep 2 say wii nd
Da hartake, n da 1000 nturl shoks
DAT flsh is air 2.

That's Shakespeare's Hamlet, in case you were confused. I know I was. The speech conventionally begins "To be or not to be."

I had hoped that putting all this painstaking effort into writing this piece would help me form an opinion on English's new form, but as always, this was all for nothing.

Oh well, that's the end of this episode of Being Forced To Listen To Pointless Rants. Hope you enjoyed yourself. See you again next week. It's good-night from me.


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