Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Our Debt to the English

Oh! Who will teach the English to speak the beautiful English language so that the rest of us might actually understand them? The poor English are oblivious to the fact that their efforts at speech are incomprehensible to the majority of English speakers around the world. Even the relatively neutral, jargon free English of semi-educated, middle class Englishmen is hard to follow. English speakers on the Continent have plenty of trouble, and the poor Asians have a heck of a time.

The English also seem oblivious to the fact that most people in England speak some kind of local dialect that is hard even for other Englishmen to understand. Why was it so funny when Peter Sellers and the Goon Squad satirized the wild regional shifts in pronunciation? Because they were so wild and counterintuitive, that’s why. They virtually satirized themselves. Even in serious news it all sounded like a joke: I recall a murderer who was apprehended after he sent a taped message to the police. Sending a taped message is always a big mistake, but it is particularly so if your speech features a pattern of clipping and dropped letters common only to a few miles of the English coastline just South of Scotland.

Are there any real rules to govern the sound of English? What about “received pronunciation,” that supernaturally weird construct of the BBC and the so-called public schools? God, I hope not. “BBC Waow’d,” indeed.

But I am not the expert here. I am no linguist, no ivory tower academic. I am just a semi-educated California lawyer who makes a living sometimes speaking, writing, reading and listening to the English language. If I am very careful I can speak very correct, clear uninflected English, every word enunciated, every letter pronounced. If I am not careful, I speak with a strong regional accent myself, a particularly vulgar working class New York accent that even other Americans have trouble keeping up with. I love the English language, though, and I have some experience teaching a willing world to speak and understand it. In the classroom my attitude is, if I could understand it, you said it correctly. It’s all about communication.

That’s why it’s so important that the English learn to speak our beautiful language. They have much to say, probably, that the rest of us may want to hear but cannot understand. Especially English comedians. Over the years I have discussed this problem with many Europeans. Recently I found myself staying in a guest house in a relatively undeveloped tourist spot in Western Thailand. Bamboo shacks floating on the river, very nice, with a small common room/restaurant nearby. It was sold out, filled up with tourists from Holland, France, Israel and some Germanic or Nordic country that was never mentioned and no one asked. There were no English or American tourists, except me that is. Everyone, the Thai staff included, communicated in English. There was no discussion, no planning session, it was just assumed that communication would be accomplished in English. No one sounded remotely like an Englishman. We were speaking what I call “world English,” and if it sounds a little like Midwestern, CNN American English well don’t look at me, water seeks it’s own level.

I spoke at some length with an extravagantly beautiful Dutch couple who finally explained to me in grateful terms that my English was very easy to hear and understand. Wow, they told me, trying to keep up with Englishmen gives us fits.

The problem is, the English did the hard work of putting this language together in the first place and it’s a shame that they cannot fully participate in the enjoyment of it now that it is widely spoken all around the world. The world owes a fabulous debt of gratitude to England for serving as the laboratory where this wonderful language was cultivated. And it wasn’t easy, mind you. If England were not so easily conquered, and if she had not been so repeatedly conquered, modern English would not exist.

Recall with me now a land long ago, and far away, with nothing but the foul weather to remind us of the England of today, a land the Romans called Britannia or something. There was Britannia, and Hibernia, and maybe Caledonia, lots of Druids and blue painted Celts and a language, maybe a few languages, that are now forgotten, except maybe in Connaught, way out in Kick-Stone, Ireland. “Let them go to hell or Connaught,” said the Lord Protector while protecting the Irish from their own prosperity. The Romans came, saw and conquered the peoples of Britannia. South of Hadrian’s Wall anyway, something told them that civilization should stop somewhere just North of the Midlands. The Romans brought with them, and imposed on the locals, their own wonderfully versatile and comprehensive language, a language in which one could discuss more than superstition and crop rotation. Soon the aristocrats spoke Latin, and everyone else spoke Latinized whatever they spoke before.

Before too long the storied isle attracted the attention of some Germans. These were the Angles and the Saxons, two Germanic tribes who had grown tired of the company of other Germans and discovered that the farmland and weather in Britain were marginally better than in central Germany. These were the original Anglo-Saxons, and it was then that Britain became England, when the Germans conquered it, that is. They brought with them a harsh language now called Old English, with a sound system more like modern Dutch or, god forbid, Swiss German, along with their typically Germanic myths, like Beowulf, and the words for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Throughout this period the coastal regions of England were subjected to frequent exploitation by wayfaring Vikings, another group of Germans who found the weather in England marginally better than in their usual homelands. Many English coastal cities began life as Viking settlements, and many Vikings married local girls and a lot of Viking words entered the vocabulary as well.

The most successful Vikings of all were the Norsemen, the “Normans,” a group of upwardly mobile Germanic French-speakers. The Normans had first conquered France, a major undertaking, and before too long turned a longing eye toward England for reasons that are lost to us. The Normans conquered England in 1066 or so and conquered Ireland about 100 years later and they did such a good job of it that they are still on both islands. Norman French became the official language of the law, commerce and taxation in what was still called England. Before the arrival of the Normans, the English people spoke a primitive language suitable only for cursing your neighbor’s farm animals; within several hundred years after the Norman’s arrival the “English Language” had been transformed into the Modern English of the King James Bible and Shakespeare. Some trick, that, and I salute the Norman’s great work in this area.

The English language, having been born, reborn, and reborn a couple of more times through repeated conquest, developed the most humble willingness to change to meet new demands and to accept new words uncomplainingly from any source at all, from the Ukraine to Indonesia and beyond. This is the greatest strength of English, the genesis of its fabulous treasure trove of words. The vocabulary of English dwarfs all other languages, known or supposed. Spelling English can be a chore, but the syntax is a model of simplicity. The basic building block, the simple declarative sentence, written into simple paragraphs building one on the other, enables the writer to communicate great ideas in clear, linear form.

Having been conquered in turn by most of the world, England produced a truly international language, a language which today is the clear choice as lingua franca for a grateful world. And now, we must take it full circle and return the knowledge of this great language to the people of its island home. Only then can we repay our great debt to the longsuffering people of England. That is if they ever want to speak with anyone who lives further away than the nearest pub.


Anonymous said...

Not a linguist? Your profile says you fancy yourself a cunning linguist ;)

Anonymous said...

Pip Pip Cheerio Right oh good man. OMC

fred c said...

I'm a hobbyist, I prefer to develop my opinions without the burden of real study.

Real study can be over-rated. Often it merely clouds the mind and prevents practitioners from speaking directly.