Posted by: JDM..... | March 14, 2012

Language as a Pliable Commodity, Part I….

When all else fails in a war of words, change the words or change the definitions…….

Historically, it seems that major conflicts have been about words rather than the issues themselves.

Take the current struggle between those who want to extend the institution of “marriage” to homosexuals. Even the wording of that introduction would be controversial today, because the word “homosexual” has been replaced by more indirect, softer references such as “gay”, “same sex”, and “non-traditional”.

I continue to be inexorably fascinated with the English language and its various significant transitions, perhaps because I suspect we are currently living in a time that will be so classified by future students (or simply the inexorably curious) of the past.

We tend to associate the concept of “language” with identifiable markers such as Spanish, German, Tagalog, Mandarin, and so forth, but that simply represents our need to pigeonhole both the tangible and the intangible into groups and collections. I suspect human brain isn’t geared to deal with the concept of “one” except as a comparative classification, singularity being meaningless without accompanying multiplicity.

I need a nap.

No modern language is a “singularity”, actually, but some are more easily tied to a linear history than others. English is not one of the linear examples, and therefore is far more interesting unless one’s purpose is nothing other than to speak it. I understand that it is considered to be a difficult language to learn. I wouldn’t really know as I was born into it. Or not. I was born to a particular version of it and exposed to several others over the course of my life. The English I speak is a composite, a stew of words with unstable or phantom meanings, idioms that defy literal translation.

A few years ago, around the time I retired and discovered that I was a lousy fisherman and that thumb-twiddling was an excruciatingly boring occupation, I began to develop an interest in communication. My being drawn to such a pursuit was undoubtedly rooted in my academic focus on human behavior through the study of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the like, but my focus on the history of English was triggered by an acceleration of success with my lifelong interest in genealogy. Learning more about the language spoken by my pilgrim ancestors and their ancestors became a necessity. My personal library of historical reference books began to include items such as The Story of Language, by Mario Pei, Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader, Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, and a dozen or so other writings, both classic and recent. I bought a six-CD lecture series on the History of the English Language, and I began to learn.

Our language is represented by iconic figures at various periods of its journey. Old English, which was in reality a collection of Eastern Germanic tribal dialects, doesn’t have specific icons as such, as there was little surviving of it in written form by the time scholars became interested, and nobody really knows what any of it actually sounded like. Eventually, clues were found, in at least one instance as scrawled marginalia on illuminated manuscripts. The eighth century work known as The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by The English monk Bede emerged as an early reference point to the group of early dialects known as Old English or Anglo Saxon.

Geoffrey Chaucer is representative of Middle English, the language spoken in England roughly between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, from around the time of the Norman invasion of 1066 and the late 1400’s. It is intelligible to Modern English speakers, though the vocabulary and structure sound “odd” to us.

Shakespeare happened to live in the right time to capitalize on the transition period between Middle English and Early Modern English, and it has been suggested that had he lived a century earlier or later he would be unknown today. His masterful confusion of wording and context, reflecting Old, Middle, and Early Modern English as well as creating grammatical puns by combining different cultural foundations provided us with the somewhat oxymoronic tradition that, 500 years later, we still insist that school children study some of the bawdiest literature ever created.

Selecting an icon for Modern English is nearly impossible for many reasons. For one, the invention of the printing press marked the beginning of the end of masse illiteracy as an accepted norm, among other aspects of history that could be ascribed to its influence. Reading, writing, and the very possession of “books” was no longer a privilege reserved for religious purposes.

Improvements in printing technology, adaptations in written English to utilize those improvements, and advances in paper making and book binding as the new nation replaced its former dependency on the industries of Britain with vigorous participation in the Industrial Revolution here in the United States, brought the explosion of home-grown literature and the mass production of works by Dickens, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Washington Irving, Emerson, Poe, and many more. Rather than being icons of various linguistic periods, writers and orators represented different politics and venues within the scope of human existence in general.

Thus, we find ourselves in the early twenty first century faced with a language of countless foundations that is once again experiencing an acceleration of ethnic, cultural, political, and technological transitions. Words that were harmless, or at least acknowledged within recent memory are now taboo. Concepts of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality have changed considerably. Words and concepts forbidden or intolerable a generation ago are now featured on prime-time television and in everyday speech.

It is understandable, therefore, that the question of changes in our concept of the relationship historically known as “marriage” is a sentinel event. Whether one’s political, religious, or moral center approves of intimate relationships between individuals of the same gender or abhors them in the extreme, I would suggest that the greatest issue at hand is “language” itself rather than the human behavior that language is struggling to define.

Where is Shakespeare when you need him…..?


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