Think You’ve Mastered English? Read This.
This is not a piece designed to show off clever long words, but to reveal that English is more complex than you’d imagine. In the process we’ll go from Virginia Woolf to Tom Jones. Follow me there.
An article republished from a US journal appeared in the Guardian this morning. Researchers have been trying to understand why the evolution of English is so random. The grammar of negating a sentence has changed from “Ic ne secge” (Beowulf, c. 900) to “Ic ne sege noht” (the Ormulum, c. 1100) to “I seye not” (Chaucer, c. 1400) to “I doe not say” (Shakespeare, c. 1600) before returning to the familiar “I don’t say” (Virginia Woolf, c. 1900).
So far, it’s as you’d expect. Then we hit the puzzle of past-tense verbs. They’re changing, and nobody knows why. “Woke” is increasingly preferred over “waked” and “lit” more popular than “lighted”, while “weaved” and “snuck” are on track to eventually overtake “wove” and “sneaked”, along with “quit” over “quitted” and “leaped” over “leapt”. Language generally changes towards the regular form because it’s easier to remember, but there’s a rise in the irregular form of the past tense.
Okay, so language changes and not always in the way you’d think – it should simplify, not become more complicated. This is American research, and US language is both more precise and more verbose, especially in its academic form, which is often compared to late Victorian prose. Much of it has a stiffness and formality which does not sit easily on the UK tongue. Conversely, we play fast and loose with language, treating it with confidence but also with disrespect. In today’s Times, there was a piece about Banksy’s art being hidden in the National Gallery, and ‘fears that it has now been pinched.’ It’s inconceivable that this sentence would ever have appeared in the New York Times – but while we break down linguistic barriers we tend to honour (and obsess about) correct structure. You’ll note that even in It’s inconceivable that this sentence would ever have appeared there’s a contraction and a complex past conditional at work. The mix ‘n’ match thing seems to come naturally.
Anyone who has flicked through the Viz Profanisaurus will know how outrageously imaginative the general public can be when it comes to sexual euphemism. ‘To keep the lid of his sauce bottle clean’ is an example that does not derive from a direct sexual connotation but operates as linguistic code for being gay, which is sometimes associated with tidiness; an untidy person leaves the dry bit on the top of a sauce bottle. So it also has working class links; a bottle set on a table. But it has other links too, to phrases like ‘knows the names of the flowers in his garden’, which suggests preciousness and unmanliness. No wonder they say that the US and the UK are countries separated by a common language.
Much of our linguistic fluidity is down to the incorporation of elements outside our language taken from simple observation and popular culture. In this way UK English works more like Yiddish or even German, where there’s a special word for ‘the feeling you get in your fingertips’. Cultural magpieing can be heard in the language of the English upper and middle classes, who are comfortable inserting Latin, French and German words into everyday conversation, while tabloid language pioneered by papers like The Sun reduce sentences to single syllable strings.
Mark Forsyth has built a career on the study of language with books like ‘The Etymologicon’. He suggests words we could bring back. I rather like ‘pectination’, meaning to sit with one’s fingers interlaced (the Latin for a comb was pectin). It suggests patience, and also waiting something out. Of course the rediscovery of marvellous old words is perfect for Mr Arthur Bryant, who uses them largely to annoy. But using funny old words for their novelty value doesn’t push them back into the linguistic limelight. Mainstream English eschews novelty, and ruthlessly edits itself.
It’s been said that a popular baking programme (how it pains me to even type that) called ‘Great British Bake-Off’ is a microcosm of Middle England, exuding warmth, fair play and inclusion. If elitism has an antonym, it’s this show. But as Sky and Glyndebourne introduce The Opera Cup, an upmarket X-Factor show of great arias, the channel is being accused of removing the barriers to opera which keep out so many. And of course, all of this comes down once again to class, the system of dividers that place our population – and its language – into castes.
Surely American language is more egalitarian; it’s either simple (Trump tweets) or complex (US academic language), and instead of class it has colour acting as a barrier. One of the first language tricks I learned was Litotes, understatement by the use of negatives, an extremely English form of eloquence. Mr Thomas Jones, the popular Welsh singer, sang ‘It’s Not Unusual’ – that’s Litotes. And by writing Mr Thomas Jones, the popular Welsh singer I am signifying something else by using the phrasing of the British music hall to suggest a faux-unfamiliarity with a famous figure that places me hierarchically above him.
It gets much more complicated from here, believe me!