A small jaunt through the veering mortality of the English language
by Elizabeth Haan
Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill: Break we our watch up; and by my advice, let us impart what we have seen to-night unto young Hamlet; —William Shakespeare – Hamlet (Herotio to Marcellus and Bernado)
My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me, that I must love a loathed enemy. —William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet (Juliet upon realizing Romeo’s identity)
With growth being an essential element of life, there is no doubt that words, their quintessential meaning and rights have shrunken, shifted and tumbled since their auspicious beginning in supposed simplicity. The English language, namely that of Old English in and around the time of 945 -1100AD, has since chipped its massive body and ill-fated elocution to later sprout the trim couture of Middle English.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes, from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore, awing the earls. Since erst he lay friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him: for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve, till before him the folk, both far and near, who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate, gave him gifts: a good king he! — (A sample of the vernacular of that time taken from Beowulf)
Centuries later, the prettiness in a once affluent language would almost be unrecognizable to those who once uttered its words. Given way, in its evolution, to the progressive cultivation of Middle English, the spoken words, now padded with a kind of French, by way of William the conqueror, the duke of Normandy. English became, for a time, a language spoken predominantly in the lower class, with French being the chosen language of the upper class. By the fourteenth century, once England righted itself, English again dominated Britain, though the patois of their native language now wore the bulk and influence of change.
… wel ye woot, agaynes kynde
Hyt were to lyven in thys wyse;
For nature wolde nat suffyse
To noon erthly creature
Withoute slep and be in sorwe —(An example of Middle English by Chaucer)
As is customary with the winds of change, a pronunciation shift later took vowels on a shortened route, bringing with that the birth of Early Modern English. Travel, ruled by the pathogens of lust, the original infectious body of wanderlust, brought the British in contact with the world, so influencing the growth of the language. This, along with the Renaissance of Classic learning, made yet another shift in the broad base of their language. Later, the invention of printing broadcasted what became an unregulated template for the language, showcasing itself in books. This new English was then revered as the expected module of this time. As Books became cheaper and literacy more prevalent, that commonality further grew. Solidified in print, spelling and grammar became fixed, giving birth to the first dictionary.
With the English colonization of North America, a distinct American variation resulted; holding still pieces of Shakespeare’s Early Modern English as well as that from a modernizing Britain, Spanish later pressed its influence to an ever brimming pot.
Understandably, (if not to be expected), speech, in an ever speeding world can do naught but conform to the demand of the people it caters to. Words once uttered beneath one’s breath, babbled in jest or in the company of like-minded people, labeled, for a time, disrespectful slangs, later join the family of respectability. With straightforwardness and ease, at time, leading the charge, break-the-fast, would later slip to the relegated comfort of breakfast. Words like to-night and other of its kind, would soon marry their disjointed self to form a single unit, while others, in this re-fabrication, were simple left by the wayside.
In today’s world, the shift seems but an ordinary occurrence, with companies embracing the variance as a means of staying fresh, adopting their slang names, influence by the dotting of the time and, of course, profits, they side with the playful yet recognizable variety of their name. Nesquik, formerly known as Nestles Quick for example, being one such company.
With the swift progression of generation X, Y and the projected technical sharpness of all the other generations to come, will their additions or perchance, selective subtractions, bring the weighty body of a modern day English, now ever shifting and sorely unadjusted with the tenacious rate of this change-slash-growth, to its knees? Or will it sprout new anchors to then stable its once voluptuous body, transferring the torch to a slimmer, less rigid, now vastly flexible spawn? The thought then surface, will the trimming be noticed, missed or provoke further alteration? Or will day meander as timely as always into night without as much as a backward glance?
As one who grew up in the seventies, in a time where music was meant to keep your feet moving, fashion and their luminous colors were meant to be seen, and slangs made it so you melded with the essence of the time. It was thought, if not understood, that each distinction had a meaning. A way of irking the expectations of the supposed righteous ones, as it was with our parents and those before them. A new seam, if you will, in the fault-line of change, although I’m a little uncertain how “YOLO” would adhere to the scripture of that. Yet the strength of its meaning and the longevity attributed to the quote uttered in various formulas by Mae West and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, prove truly the weight of its pull. Still, has meaning, purpose and cause somehow lost its strength in a thinking evolution?
The beauty of the human mind, the process of a thought through to the fruition of a notion, has that light dimmed some in purpose? I cannot deny that the ease now attached to the effort of stored phone numbers supersedes the use of a rolodex, so saving the wrist, as does the app for storing the ever lengthening passwords expected in this day and age. Likewise, the simplicity of certain etiquette is now archived in the memories of those of us conversant with having to perform the task. Should we, as a society, encourage, argue or embrace the continuous current of these changes, accepting or denying the good that sidle in as closely with the bad? The English language will always be here, unless smite by some movement not yet ready to make its mark. However, conscious or not, the speed at which these changes now happen feels somewhat astounding. Age, I’m sure, has a bit to do with that, a not so acceptable fact of growing old. Still, it is this writer’s humble opinion that a greater question needs to be asked of us all, will the remains of today’s language be worth a farthing of what it once was? What will the English Language look like to those of us who carry the scars of learning words and paragraph formation, cursive writing, fountain pens and the all-important penmanship to our deteriorating memories? For certain, we can predict the claims, guaranteed in their intro of “I remember when” or the continuous grumbles hailing the prominence of “In my day” in the mere pittance of twenty years. What then will it show for the expanse of a century?