Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The English Language

Have you noticed a distinct change in language lately?
In just a short few years we have added to and changed the English language in such a way that, if someone from 1980 could travel into the future to our society today, they would scarcely understand much of what we say. But, I find myself using terminology of my youth as well as the 'modern lingo.'
For instance, my kids will say, "I'm going to listen to my i-pod."
I used to (and still) say, "I'm going to play my stereo."

My kids will say, "I downloaded a bunch of music from i-tunes."
I say, "I'm going out to the record store."

How about "Just click the mouse on the icon to get to the blog you wanted to bookmark."

And, "Why don't you throw on a dvd?"

Or, how about " 'sup?" for "What's up?"

There are so many more phrases and terms that are used today.

I can just imagine the look on my long-deceased (1982) father's face if he could hear this 21st century jargon! And I have barely touched the surface here!

The best part is that, as a mid-19th century living historian/reenactor, I spend a good amount of time researching the language of the Civil War era so I can include that speech pattern into my 1st person presentation! Some of the changes in language from 150 years ago until now are dramatically different. For instance, the word "hello" was a rare greeting before the 1880's. Thomas Edison convinced Alexander Graham Bell to say "Hello" when answering his new-fangeled telephone instead of what he wanted: "ahoy ahoy." (Only Mr. Burns from 'The Simpsons' still answers the phone the way Mr. Bell originally wanted)
So when you saw someone you knew on the street in 1861, you would have greeted them with a hearty "Good day! (or morning, afternoon, evening, night, etc. - whichever time of day it was).
The word 'excitement' today is usually a good thing: "That was an exciting football game" or "There was so much excitement at the concert!"
Back in the 19th century, it meant just the opposite. For example, if you were in Gettysburg in late June 1863, you may have said, "There was much excitement in the street last night for the Rebels marched through town pell mell!"

I am fascinated by the English language. There is a wonderful book entitled 'Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email' by David Wolman that I am reading that gives a history of our language and why we speak and spell the way we do. Wolman gives an excellent historical overview of where our language came from. He gets to the root of our modern language - its so-called DNA - and speaks on the why's and wherefores of how we came to communicate in the way we do. There is also a history lesson on how Chaucer and Webster, in their respective times, attempted to reform spelling and language.
Wolman also has fun with our pronunciation of same-spelled words. For example: rough, dough, bough, through.

If you have, like me, read any of the great books of the 19th century, you will find that the slang of that time period could be a bit difficult to understand initially. 'Dip' I found means candle (he snuffed out his dip), 'situation' means job ("Let me hear another sound from you," said Scrooge, "and you'll keep your Christmas by losing your situation!"). This is where the 'annotated' books come in handy. For instance, the "Annotated 'A Christmas Carol' " by Michael Patrick Hearn brought totally new light to this wonderful old story. I have never found a better, more telling version of this 'carol' and it not only helped me to understand the story itself in greater definition, but it helped me to understand the social history of the times in which Mr. Dickens was writing. It amazed me how much of this story I missed until I read the annotated version.

But, believe it or not, many of us that listen to and/or sing the old Christmas Carols are helping to keep much of the old language alive. The latest issue of History Magazine has an excellent article on just that. In it, the author, David Goss, speaks of such archaic phrases that we hear daily this time of year: "hither page and stand by me" from 'Good King Wenceslas,' "Why lies He in such mean estate" from 'What Child Is This,' "What the gladsome tidings be" from 'Angels We Have Heard On High," and so many more. Words such as 'hark,' 'doth,' 'tidings,' 'thither,' 'sages,' 'hath,' 'lowing'... And, upon my own outside research, I can add "was to certain poor shepherds" from 'The First Nowell,' "With the dawn of redeeming grace" from 'Silent Night,' and the title itself of 'O Come All Ye Faithful,' much less the words. I found nearly every pre-20th century carol using words and terms no longer present in our every day speech.
And yet we sing and hear these carols daily from Thanksgiving through December 25th!
Truly a fascinating article.

Now, look at some of the language over the last 40 years or so: 'cool,' 'bad,' 'dig it,' 'drag, 'hip,' were all popular in my youth, but are rarely used today. Well, except for maybe 'cool'. The terminology of beatniks, hippies, and the Jazz fans. Much of it, believe it or not, was stemmed from the 1920's, when slang became popular - much more than ever before, probably due to media accessibility (radio, magazines, papers, etc.) and the fact that it was the first decade to emphasize youth culture over the older generations. Words like 'hep,' 'and how,' 'bees knees' 'doll,' 'flapper,' even 'jazz,' were all as commonly used in the 1920's as modern slang is today.

Then there is the 'blue' language. It surprises me just how accepted certain swear words are today that just a few years ago would have gotten one in deep trouble. It's pretty much an anything-goes society when it comes to cussing. Me? I try not to, although I must admit that when I find a sudden burst of anger (or pain) arises, certain words will flow that could make a truck driver blush. I don't mean to, it just happens.
By the way, I do not believe - and will never be convinced - that foul language is protected by the 1st Amendment. If you look at it in its context, one can easily see that it is there for us as American citizens to speak out peaceably against our government.

Anyhow, I find the English language and its many changes a very fascinating part of our social history that many pay no mind to. In fact, if English teachers taught spelling and language in its historical form - teaching the students language history and maybe having their students use only out-dated words for a day here and there - it just might make an otherwise boring class a bit more interesting. I remember having to read Dickens' 'Great Expectations' and not understanding much of it because I didn't know many of the terms he used. So, I didn't get as much out of the story as I could have.

By the way, the parting words spoken when one left another - "God Be With You" - has, over the centuries, morphed into...'goodbye.' This from word histories: No doubt more than one reader has wondered exactly how goodbye is derived from the phrase “God be with you.” To understand this, it is helpful to see earlier forms of the expression, such as God be wy you, god b'w'y, godbwye, god buy' ye, and good-b'wy. The first word of the expression is now good and not God, for good replaced God by analogy with such expressions as good day, perhaps after people no longer had a clear idea of the original sense of the expression. A letter of 1573 written by Gabriel Harvey contains the first recorded use of goodbye: “To requite your gallonde [gallon] of godbwyes, I regive you a pottle of howdyes,” recalling another contraction that is still used.
How cool is that? People are giving each other a religious send off every time they say 'goodbye'!

And with that, I shall leave you with God Be With You!

(maybe one day I'll write about spelling changes!)


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