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Evolving English – British Library tells the story

English is in a mess. New words are being invented and adopted every day, slang words are poisoning the language and spelling is variable. Sounds familiar? This complaint was actually made 300 years ago by one of the most prominent writers of the day.

Jonathan Swift sought to promote an English Academy on the lines of the Académie Française to “fix language for ever” because he felt English was in a state of chaos. He made the suggestion in a tract of 1712 that’s on show in an exhibition at the British Library in London.

The exhibition is called Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. It explores for the first time the English language from Anglo-Saxon runes to Beowulf, from nursery rhymes to rap.

Swift’s suggestion never got anywhere. No official authority regulating the use of the English language exists, but there are dictionaries of course, the first one dating from the 16th century, and they all introduce new words with every new edition. The language evolves as it likes, making it impossible for grumpy old editors like me to exert any meaningful influence.

Shakespeare is credited with an extraordinary capacity to push English to its limits. Over 1,800 words are attributed to the playwright in the Oxford English Dictionary. But English does not belong to England in the sense of there being a pure standard. The “Queen’s English” is spoken by a minority of citizens even in the United Kingdom.

From epic tales to bad jokes, English has been creatively used for over 1,500 years. It evolved from Saxon and Viking invaders, flourishing as the language of the people alongside the French of the Norman rulers and the Latin writing of the scribes. English has absorbed words from more than 300 other languages through the centuries.

The use of English as the main language of the Internet has accelerated both the spread of the language throughout the world and its development. It is now spoken by 1.8 billion people.

Perhaps the clearest change happening now, according to the exhibition, is that some youth-speak terms have entered mainstream usage so that many adults would feel at ease saying they had been “disrespected” by someone with “issues” or too much “attitude”.

Another recent phenomenon is obviously the use of SMS, or text messages, on mobile (cell) phones where words and expressions are abbreviated. Just think of “b4” (before) and “lol”, as in laugh out loud.

But, again, there is nothing new under the sun. In Gleanings from the Harvest-Fields of Literature by Charles C Bombaugh in 1867, a poem called Essay to Miss Catherine Jay includes the phrase “I wrote 2 U B 4” – more than 120 years before the invention of text messaging.

The exhibition closes in April. If you don’t live in the London area you can still experience it by going to the website: http://www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish/ evolvingenglish

I welcome your comments.

Rolf Soderlind

http://www.absolutwriting.com/ absolutwriting

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One comment on “Evolving English – British Library tells the story

  1. Fantastic post Rolf. I found it fascinating to hear just how long people have been complaining about changes in the English language. And the bit about text speak in 1867 was utterly surprising. There is nothing new under the sun. Please keep sharing your insights in such a clear and entertaining way.

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