Saturday, June 28, 2008

Skimming along the edges of English

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, historical linguistics

Ever hear of a pruning hook? This is what one looks like; it is about three feet long. Though its inner edge is sharpened, its main utility is pulling down dead branches.

There was a law regarding the King's trees in royal forests in medieval England: nobody could cut them down. But people were allowed to pull down any dead wood that was within reach of a pruning hook or a shepherd's crook. The latter had the advantage, being twice as long. Through the process of time, this gave rise to that practical expression, "by hook or by crook."

Linguist David Crystal has written a few books on language. While traveling along the English/Welsh borderlands on behalf of a BBC project titled "Voices," he compiled private notes on the fascinating array of accents and dialects to be found there. He has gathered these into a nearly stream-of-consciousness memoir of the journey, By Hook or By Crook: A Journey in Search of English.

It is axiomatic that we learn most about the limits of a subject by examining its borders. This is true of language most of all. You'll have to click on this image to read the name of this train station, and its interpretation, in a larger image. It is considered the longest name of a town in the English language: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It is the only "word" with four L's in a row, though in many renditions, there is a hyphen between "...drobwll" and "llanty...".

This "English" word was composed in the Anglo-Saxon—that is, Germanic—way of jamming a phrase together, in this case a long phrase in Welsh, to make one word. People who live in this lovely Anglesey village don't go around saying the whole name, but get by with calling their home "Llanfairpwll", approximately pronounced, "hlan-fire-pool". This long name, its origin and meaning, and plenty of musing about long words and long names in general, forms much of the first chapter, which begins and ends with the discussion of "by hook or by crook".

The midlands of England and Wales typify a locale in which you can tell someone's birthplace within a mile or two, or sometimes which block of which street, by the accent. Parts of New York and New Jersey are like that, but for most of the United States, accents cover much broader regions. There are only about four Texas accents, for example, and so far as I can tell, one lovely one does for both North and South Carolina (Carolinians may differ with me here!).

I do recall, during the time I lived in Oklahoma, and frequently visited Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, that "y'all" has regional meanings. It is the only form of "you" you're likely to hear in much of Louisiana, while in Texas "y'all" and "you-all" mean you, singular, while "all-y'all" is plural. Arkansans and most Okies use "you" and "y'all" for singular and plural, with a fair measure of consistency.

These are mainly dialect differences, as they concern word usage. It is the different ways that "y'all" and "you-all" are pronounced that constitute accents. I am less capable of making a regional deduction based only on accent, but I suspect Dr. Crystal could do so. At least, he can certainly do so among the various accents that populate the British Isles.

On page 143 he writes, "English has always been a vacuum-cleaner of a language, sucking in new words form whatever languages it happens to make contact with," noting that English words derive from at least 350 languages, and only about 20% of current English usage is derived from Anglo-Saxon. In terms a professional linguist would use, much of English is thus composed of loan words. Of course, they are not on loan, as Crystal observes: we have appropriated them and often morphed them almost beyond recognition, but many we simply swallowed whole. He has a delightful riff on computer, a French word, but now so thoroughly identified with English that the French disdain it in favor of ordinateur!

A language has boundaries not only in space but in time. Do try to read this inscription (click for a larger image if needed): it is only 400 years old or so: it is the epitaph of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Should you be so fortunate to be in the presence of one of his "first folios" or a good facsimile, or a first edition of the King James Bible (Authorized Version) of 1611, take a flying try at reading it. You'll be surprised how our language has changed in about fifteen generations.

The fact that you can read it at all is a tribute primarily to Shakespeare himself. His writings and plays are so beloved, and the English Bible produced by his contemporaries in Elizabeth's court being of equal influence, that these two oeuvres have anchored the language and kept it to roots that many other languages have lost.

I couldn't resist tracking down this image; the monochrome version in the book is not nearly so dramatic. It is in the Great Garden in Stratford, Shakespeare's town. One of several works inspired by his plays, it is titled A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Author Crystal calculates that Shakespeare's poetic output totals more than 80,000 lines. One would think it a record, but it is not. A more recent, rather obsessive poet, one John Bradburne, whose known (and growing) body of work totals more than 170,000 lines...most of it produced in but ten years. And it's good poetry, too. He died in 1979, as a Christian martyr, having stood up for residents of the Mutemwa leper colony in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Otherwise he could still be with us, and who knows how much poetry he'd have produced!

Back to spatial edges for a moment. The largest number of English speakers in the world are in India, 350 million of them. This number is growing fast. Because of the dozens of household languages in that polyglot nation, new loan words are being gathered at a great rate. I figure, between "teen text" and India, it's rather a tie who is having the greatest effect on English for the coming generation. I find it amazing that there are so many ways English is spoken, that manage to be comprehensible to the majority of us.

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