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Thursday, October 07, 2004

English Anyone?

Question: How many snowboarders does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: Hell’a snowboarders, dude.

Snowboarders have a reputation for being ferociously stupid and inarticulate. They aren’t any dumber than most other tribal subcultures of modern American youth but they are a good subject for humor. All of the people who are the most susceptible to the influence of pop culture jargon and slang, these victims of marketing, have one thing in common: They are--for the most part--a post-literate society

Every time I hear a new MTV catch-phrase like hell’a (a lot) or flava (fuck if I know what that means) I am reminded of Haitian Kreyol and of rapidly mutating disease viruses. Whenever I hear someone use one of those weak verbal expressions I ask them if they could please spell it for me. If you listen to the current hip hop artist du jour give an interview what you will hear is a lot of garbled words that add up to almost no content. They should have these stars write out in their own words what they are trying to communicate. Perhaps this will make them realize that their spoken words convey almost no meaning.

Haitian Kreyol has been adrift in a linguistic storm since Haiti’s independence in 1804. The Caribbean nation has an alarming 85% rate of illiteracy. The language now spoken in Haiti has not been moored securely by a written language. From French the islanders have incorporated many African dialects along with bits and pieces of English, Portuguese, and Spanish. All languages borrow from others but Haitian Kreyol has continued borrowing, evolving, mutating, and making itself all but unintelligible from the language spoken by Haitians of only a generation ago.

On the other hand, ancient Greek and Modern Greek are remarkably similar although separated by two millennia. What helped to keep Greek on its linguistic foundation were the writings of the ancient Greeks. Once the oral traditions of Greece were committed to writing, Greek had a reference point for all literate people (There are other reasons for the lack of dynamism in the Greek language but they don’t strengthen my argument so I will not address them).

Our own language had a more rocky start. English began as the language of Germanic warriors who came to England on the heels of the Romans. Their language was slightly altered by the scant Latin they borrowed from the preceding occupiers. Christianity further accelerated the Latin influence upon English. The Norman Conquest brought thousands and thousands of French words into English. English adapted well and used the loan words to strengthen itself and introduce an increased subtlety as exampled by words that are almost—but not quite—synonymous. ‘Ask’ is not quite the same as ‘demand.’ ‘Start/ commence’ ‘answer/respond’ ‘freedom/liberty’ are just a few of these slightly synonymous pairs that have added to the precision and flexibility of our native tongue.

Eventually we got around to writing down English and through the written word we cast a mold. This mold has been the vessel that has carried the language across the centuries. The language has continued to evolve but the changes occur over centuries—not within the time a song is on the pop charts. From Chaucer we get an English that is almost entirely intelligible to modern readers:

This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie,
Derk was the nyght as pitch, or as the cole,
And that at the window out she putte hir hole,
and Absolon, hym fil no bet wers (fared no better or worse),
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers (arse)

Chaucer began work on The Canterbury Tales in 1386. From Chaucer English progresses in the written form with the Bible of John Wycliffe and later, that of William Tyndale. Two hundred years after Chaucer we find the writings of Shakespeare whose language seems quaint for our times but certainly more readable than The Canterbury Tales.

English was the language of the people and became the language of the government.
It is difficult to believe that quite a bit of effort was actually made to simplify English spelling. I’m not the greatest speller so I’d rather not even think about the state of the English language before “simplification.” What did happen over the centuries is that English became rooted in a semi-standardized written form. Increased literacy rates among citizens of English speaking countries has grounded the language and kept it fairly stable for a few hundred years.

I would say that the novel has done a great deal to codify the English language. Novels brought the language to anyone who was able to read. Narrative fiction side-stepped the issue of regional dialects and accents; American readers could read a Dickens novel and pronounce the dialogue any way they saw fit. Few writers tried to write in the actual dialect of the people. Novelists who wrote outside of Standard English were and continue to be the exception. The mold has been cast.

Slang has always been with us. English continues to evolve and is strengthened by the evolution. The deliberate attempt by the MTV/pop culture engines to create a new vocabulary for every new hip hop artist or boy band is more about marketing than language. Most of the pop slang offerings stay with us about as long as a song is on the pop charts. The influence of commerce on language has always been with us but the power and scope of commerce has grown exponentially. The English language is bigger than any industry and will continue to prosper and to thrive. There has never been a post-literate culture in the history of man so I suppose it is anyone’s guess as to where we will be taken by the armies of the inarticulate.

Just take a look at the short history of Rap and it’s anyone’s guess today what they were saying back in 1992 in this Public Enemy song, Tie Goes to the Runner.

To the blind Def and Dumb
Hard to see’em comin’
But dey come here dey come
Don’t be dumb diggity dumb
Politikin’ writin’ bad checks
Still dey gettin’ wreck
Goin’ fo’ a nigga neck
Rollin’ in a blue ‘n’ white gang
Ready to bang biggeddy bang

My spell-check had a harder time with that passage which is 12 years old than with the Chaucer lines from 618 years ago.

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