Monday, April 2, 2012

It's Only Words...Our Ever-Changing Language

Have you noticed a distinct change in our language lately?
I don't mean an overnight change.

But, think about 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. I like to use the year of my father's death (1982) as the "before & after" comparison: what would he notice that's different, whether in product or speech?
For instance, at the date of his death - April 1982 - the home computer, though in 'future' predictions of the time, was over a decade away from actuality as we know it to be. Cable television was relatively new to our area at that time, and we *only* had around 20 channels or so. Sirius radio wasn't even in a dream. Cell phones? Really?

Would my father understand the 21st century meanings of such words and phrases as cell phone, lap top, mouse, plasma,  or tablet?

I still find myself often using terminology of my youth and find it interesting when compared to my kid's speech patterns.
For instance, my kids will say, "I'm going to listen to my i-pod."
I 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 Blu-Ray?"

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

There are so many phrases and terms that are commonly used today that were not around in my youth: "ipad" or "iphone" or even "smart phone" for example.

I can just imagine the look on my 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, 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 Bell originally wanted: "ahoy ahoy." (Only Mr. Burns from 'The Simpsons' still answers the phone in that way).
So when one saw a familiar face on the street in 1862, they more than likely would have greeted their friend with a hearty "Good day! (or morning, afternoon, evening, night, etc. - whichever time of day it was), or a "Mr. Jones, how are you?"

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 have read 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. Included is 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. Or how about the shhhh sound: sugar, emotion, charade, social, fishing, and fission?

This leads me to another aspect of our language and the written word:
on Facebook recently there was an interesting post centering around a comment made about one of the modern "Twilight" vampire books versus the classic 1897 novel "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. The one complaint I read from a few - and have heard before under similar discussions - was that the writing style from the 19th century was boring...too overly descriptive...not enough excitement.
I haven't read the original "Dracula" since high school many years ago (truly many years ago!), but I do read Dickens quite often. I've read "Oliver Twist," "Great Expectations," "David Copperfield," and of course "A Christmas Carol," among others.
Here, let's take a look at a sample from the original "Carol" from 1843:
"Such a hustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course: and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter smashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!"
What a very descriptive style, wouldn't you say? I mean, one can easily see and hear the excitement of the Cratchit household, and even smell and taste the Christmas dinner brought forth by Mrs. Cratchit.
In the age before television and radio, it was books that entertained, books filled with such clarity and detail that the reader's mind could not help but be filled with not only the storyline, but a full picture of the sights and sounds as well.
It was this kind of description that was needed to draw the reader in. Again, remember: no television, radio, or movies.
The authors of the 19th century were masters at their crafts that modern writers couldn't hold a literal candle to. They brought their stories to life with their unwitting portraits to the past. And this helps us here in the 21st century fully understand their daily lives, manners, and even their words.

What can really help the modern reader understand some of the archaic language usage while reading some of the classics are the "Annotated" versions available. I have found these Annotated books to really be a Godsend for me, for in many cases I have a difficult time understanding a few of the phrases or word meanings the authors used that are considered archaic today. The annotated versions explain these difficulties and help to add a greater understanding of the times in which the books were written.
Thus it helps me to understand social history that much better.
Let's continue for a couple more terms found in "A Christmas Carol" - -
'Dip' I found means candle ("he snuffed out his dip"),
 'situation' in this context 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.

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.
I find it funny to hear people sing archaic phrases during the Christmas holiday season and not think twice about it:
"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 on.
Yes, come the holidays we all sing out such words 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,'
"Troll the ancient yuletide carol" from 'Deck the Halls' ('troll' meaning to sing out)
and the title itself of 'O Come All Ye Faithful,' much less the words.
I found nearly every still popular 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!

Let's 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 greater than ever before media accessibility (radio, magazines, papers, etc.) and the fact that it was the first decade to emphasize teen youth culture over previous 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 curse (or 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.)

I find the English language and its constant changes/variations a 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 when I originally read Dickens' 'Great Expectations' while in high school 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. But to be forced to use certain phrases for a day would have enhanced my understanding.

By the way, the parting words spoken when one left another a few centuries ago - "God Be With You" - has, over the centuries, morphed into...'goodbye.' This from a word histories site: 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'!
It also sort of changes the whole feel of the Beatles' 'Hello Goodbye' (Good Day / God Be With You') doesn't it?

I love language and seeing the changes. Many modern historians do not know their word histories and therefore may not always fully understand what the meaning of a historical document or an ancient diary or newspaper might be. Like other pieces of social history, language is being lost amidst all of the politics and 'major events.'
And that's a shame.

But let's end this on a high note, shall we? I should like to leave you with some word fun:
Some = home?
No, some = hum.
Home = come?
No, home = comb.
Comb = bomb?
No, bomb = tom.
Then add a "B" to tom (like bomb) to really throw in a wrench - bomb is not the same as tomb!
And the ever-popular
Your, you're, and yore
There is also
Go and do (or is it goe and doe? Maybe gue and due...?)
And also
There, their, and they're
Or how about the 'ough' spelling I mentioned earlier (with one addition):
rough, dough, bough, cough,  through, and hiccoughing
and the wonderful sounds and spellings of the shhh sound:
ocean, sugar, emotion, charade, social, fission, fishing and even conscience stuff!
Or is it phun stough?



Historical Ken said...

From Steve - - - -

Hi Ken, I tried to comment on your blog, but it didn't give me anything for the visual verification to prove I'm not a robot, so I'm gonna send the comment this way:

Thanks for the great blog and the note about Wolman's book which I'll check out. An interesting thing about that quote from Dickens' The Christmas Carol is that people would talk like that and people had the attention span to take it all in and understand it all.

You might be interested in another book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. He doesn't so much talk about the history of our language, but about the shift from a print-based language to to our present sound-bite, media snippet language and the effect that has had on our way of perceiving the world. Here's an example he give from part of a speech by Abraham Lincoln: "It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground." Whew! That's hard enough to follow in print. Can you imagine that the average person at that time could follow him - and respond in kind if given the opportunity.

So, just a long comment to note that our language has changed a lot in the last 150+ years, and not just in terms of vocabulary.

Take care,

Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Ken-

I love the changing of language, too. But in reality, it probably always changed at the rate it does now. As long as people are communicating clearly to each other, changes are inevitable. When you think about it, the lower classes in this country have introduced many of our slang words that have become mainstream, even though we really don't have a class system. In England, the Cockneys have evolved their own complex slang, as they are considered the low class in a very class-structured system. Very interesting!


Historical Ken said...

I'm sure you are correct Pam. I'm more aware of it now.
By the way, my ancestors in England were cockney's - I love it!