The English Language

The English Language #

On the eve of the First World War, an editorial in the Berlin Deutsche Tageszeitung argued that the German language, “coming direct from the hand of God,” should be imposed “on men of all colors and nationalities.” The alternative, the newspaper said, was unthinkable:

Should the English language be victorious and become the world language the culture of mankind will stand before a closed door and the death knell will sound for civilization. . . .

*English, the bastard tongue of the canting island pirates, must be swept from the place it has usurped and forced back into the remotest corners of Britain until it has returned to its original elements of an insignificant pirate dialect. *(James William White in **A Primer of the War for Americans. **

This sabre-rattling reference to English as “the bastard tongue” was hardly original. Three centuries earlier, the headmaster of St. Paul’s School in London, Alexander Gil, wrote that since the time of Chaucer the English language had been “defiled” and “corrupted” by the importation of Latin and French words:

Today we are, for the most part, Englishmen not speaking English and not understood *by English ears. Nor are we satisfied with having begotten this illegitimate progeny, nourished this monster, but we have exiled that which was legitimate–our birthright–pleasant in expression, and acknowledged by our forefathers. O cruel country!   *(Logonomia Anglica, 1619.

Not everyone agreed. Thomas De Quincey, for example, regarded such efforts to malign the English language as “the blindest of human follies”:

The peculiar, and without exaggeration we may say the providential, felicity of the English language has been made its capital reproach–that, whilst yet ductile and capable of new impressions, it received a fresh and large infusion of alien wealth. It is, say the imbecile, a “bastard” language, a “hybrid” language, and so forth. . . . It is time to have done with these follies. Let us open our eyes to our own advantages. (“The English Language,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, April 1839)

In our own time, as suggested by the title of John McWhorter’s recently published linguistic history*, we’re more likely to boast about our “magnificent bastard tongue.” English has unashamedly borrowed words from more than 300 other languages, and (to shift metaphors) there’s no sign that it plans to close its lexical borders any time soon.   80% of our vocabulary comes from other languages. 

When Joseph Conrad was asked why he didn’t write in Polish, the great English novelist replied:

I value too much our beautiful Polish literature to introduce into it my worthless twaddle. But for Englishmen my capacities are just sufficient: they enable me to earn my living.

Both Churchill and Orwell urge the short, gutteral Anglo Saxon word over the pretentious foreign one.

The media loves to decry the *“falling standards of each new age”.  *Newspaper headlines from the early 19^(th) C. scream out about the decline of usage.  If you believed them we should no longer be capable of communicating in it. 

This is a result of a basic misunderstanding of how English differs from all other languages.  One of many reasons why English has become a World Language – Franca Lingua, is because it is so flexible and forgiving.  It is not prescriptive or highly structured.  It is very democratic, amorphous and organic.  

In contrast, French, Russian and Iceland are more static, enforcing strict controls on which words can be admitted. Our lexicographers from Dr Samuel Johnson ( 1755) tend to follow custom, rather than lead.  They scour publications to discover new words and usages.  Much of our day to day parlance is metaphorical and here novelty and striking innovation is more important than slavish, fastidious preciseness.  True, in Referential or Technical language; it needs to be precise, denotative and literal in meaning.  ie.;  The acid ate through the metal; is not figurative.  In imaginative creative opinion writing we prefer eye catching collocations to pedantry.  New ways of saying old things.

The danger of this is that through sloppy usage we lose many pristine words such as, fulsome, sophisticated, propaganda – distinctions such as avenge/revenge, uninterested/disinterested, existence/existential, distrust/mistrust - even fewer and less is in danger….

We do not have to despair at the decay of language because of the proliferation of jargon, euphemism or infra dig words. Language purifies itself in the same way that the ocean does. Popularised technicality goes in impatient vogues. It has a brief life. As a dead body or decaying matter does not last long in the ocean; so meaningless diction does not last long in language. However there is some evidence, even the oceans can become over burdened.

There is a lot of misuse around, and it increases everyday. But you do not have to accept it unless you want to. That is the point of having a democratic, organic language.