Mind your language

news: Mind your language

“From the moment I met you, I knew I could not live without you. You are intelligent, attractive and fun to be with. I love you.” The bridegroom’s speech was going well, his audience captivated. And then he got her name wrong. Helen was not Claire and Helen stormed out of the church – her whereabouts still shrouded in mystery.

Clangers during wedding-day speeches are not uncommon, apparently. There has been a father of the bride rendered speechless by his forgotten false teeth and a brother who bizarrely made an entire speech on how a bottle of TCP antiseptic reminded him of his sister. None of these, however, come close to the delivery by Tom in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, during which he famously managed to insult the entire wedding party and branded the groom’s ex-girlfriends as ‘dogs’!

People have problems with public speaking in general and expressing themselves correctly in particular. My contention, which is often met with derisory ridicule by good friends, is that they will never grasp the full scope of the English language, however much they study or pride themselves on their ability to imitate phonetic sounds. If you have not lived in Britain, did not grow up there and inhale the ‘culture’, it is impossible for you to comprehend every nuance, double meaning and mildly differentiating intonation of that complex language. The reason is simple. If you did not live through the cultural evolution of a particular means of communication, you are merely repeating parrot fashion, however perfect, without actually understanding the full meaning of what you are saying.

The above wedding-speech shockers are not really pertinent but serve to give some hilarity to the present topic. Euphemisms, spoonerisms, alliteration and double entendre all add an unreachable dimension to a language that has begged, stolen or borrowed words from every corner of the globe in its 1,500-year history. Linguists as a whole are a treasure trove, opening new avenues to the understanding of how we communicate today. Did you know, for example, that our word for father can be traced back 3,000 years to Sanskrit where it was ‘pitar’? It has since been transformed by the old German ‘vater’ and the Latin ‘pater’ to reach its present form. In Australia, a ‘dunny’ is an outside lavatory, a ‘widgie’ a woman in her 50s and 60s with short hair, tight clothes, wild behaviour and free sexuality, and a ‘bodgie’ her male equivalent.

None of these would mean a thing in England, demonstrating that English is a transitory, constantly changing medium. It is also a language of many origins. ‘Its chaotic yet sublime state of flux betrays its deep mongrel nature when you delve down to its roots and deduce its history’. Looking back at that sentence, ‘delve’ has fifth century Anglo Saxon sources, ‘root’ stems from Danish invaders arriving 400 years later, ‘language’ is mediaeval French and ‘deduce’ comes from Renaissance Latin. I rest my case.

What hope do non-native speakers (other than myself) have? When I shout ‘just popping down the local for a jar – back in a jiffy love’ at my perfectly fluent Portuguese girlfriend, I might as well be speaking Chinese. This is not a criticism but a fact of life. Add the regional ingredients rendering conversations in a Glasgow pub incomprehensible to even the most highly trained ear, and you have a secret language that still bears mysteries for its aficionados.

One characteristic of English is its obstinacy and loyalty to its origins. When we say ‘man’, ‘daughter’, ‘house’, ‘drink’, ‘ground’, ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘love’ and ‘lust’, we still use words introduced 1,500 years ago. Post-1066, the French brought along 12,000 new words to do with law, justice and power – tools of oppression. Also oxen and cows became cattle, meat turned into beef, English sheep were re-named mutton, calf became veal, deer, venison and pig, pork. The English laboured, the French feasted. At the beginning of the Dark Ages and throughout the 14th and 15th century Renaissance period, Latin, introduced by the Church, started to flex its muscles. Hundreds of words including ‘demonstrate’, ‘calculate’, ‘radius’, ‘critical’, ‘horrid’, ‘specimen’ and ‘atmosphere’ were absorbed to reinforce the class system. If these were beyond your comprehension, you were an ‘ignoramus’ – a further addition and put-down.

Over the last 200 years, learned men such as William Barnes, Sir James Murray, Dr. Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift have attempted to turn English back into English – to no avail. The language is an untameable beast, wild and adventurous. Impossible to truss up in a straitjacket. In one famous example, Oxford English Dictionary compiler Murray rejected the term ‘appendicitis’ as too obscure for common use, only to find the word on everyone’s lips after the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902 was postponed due to the King’s inflamed appendix.

Meanings also change constantly and with amazing speed. Only 50 years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to have a ‘jolly gay time’. Nowadays that is not possible without an extra robust condom! If you ‘decimate’ the opposition, you no longer reduce it by a tenth, you annihilate it. Other examples include ‘chauffeur’, originally meaning to warm up as in the French verb chauffer, ‘career’, once a racetrack, now once more appropriate in terms of the rat race and ‘nice’, which meant foolish, and does so again now in a certain context. The 19th century German nation builder, Count Otto Von Bismarck, said: “The defining fact about modern history is that the North Americans speak English” – an assertion open to debate, but strictly speaking true, as, despite a huge numerical advantage, Americans do not share French or Spanish as their common language. ‘Well wicked’!

If you want to ‘delve’ deeper into this cultural miracle, read The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, published by Sceptre Paperback.