Friday, September 30, 2005

English language and literature

Two items have caught my eye in the past 48 hours... The first was in the Writer's Almanac on Wednesday which announced:

Today is a big day in the history of the English language. On this day, in 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. Having defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings and on Christmas day he was crowned the King in Westminster Abbey.

At the time the British were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans, of course, spoke French, and over time the languages blended. To the Saxon word "house" came the Norman word "mansion." To the Saxon word "cow" came the Norman word "beef" and so on.

So the English language now contains more than a million words, one of the most diverse languages on earth. Cyril Connelly wrote, "The
English language is like a broad river... being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." But Walt Whitman said, "The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all."

As a philologist, Tolkien abhorred the Norman French take-over of the English language that came about because William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings. His Shire is resolutely English, as are his Hobbits, and his plan for his fiction was to create a mythology for England that was English.

But for all that, he was not very fond of English literature any more than he was of the French take-over of English. He reportedly disliked Shakespeare at school, and he was not over fond of Milton either (preferring Old English literature to the more "modern" literature), so I console myself that although I am guilty of a "deep crime", according to the Poet Laureate, I am in good company. Andrew Motion has suggested that is 'a "deep crime" never to have read key Shakespeare works, Paradise Lost or Great Expectations.' Still, I have read many of Shakespeare's plays, and many of Dickens' novels, and even some old English texts (admittedly translated into modern English), so I hope my crime will be forgiven.


Anonymous said...

Can't say I agree with Andrew Motion on that idea. Sure if your studying Eng. Lit at Uni then I think its fair to say you should have least been to the odd shakespeare play. Incidently why would anyone want to read shakespeare rather than go and see it performed. They're plays, not novels.

Anyway I think Mr. Motion is falling prey to a common problam. He believes that others should share his taste in literature. Now that's not a major crime and I've fallen prey to trying to get people to read my favourite books. In particular I've had the following conversation more than once.

"Well if your having trouble getting into Lord of the Rings take my advice. First, ignore all the songs. Second its very slow at the start and if you find yourself getting bogged down (and people do) skip ahead a bit to, say, The Ring goes south in Book two"

So to get back to my point. Every now and then pick up a book and go somewhere magical. Don't feel guilty just because the author's got a pulse.

'Til I die

Joe the Fish

"And you don't hear me.
'Cos I don't have much to say."

Michele said...

Joe I quite agree with you with regard to the importance of seeing Shakespeare. I learnt that lesson age 15 when we were doing Richard II for O-level English. A trip was organised to see it performed by the RSC and I didn't want to go since I was struggling to understand the play, but my English teacher persuaded me it would make more sense if I saw it on stage, and fortunately I listened to her advice and went. That was more than 20 years ago, but I've not forgotten it - I can still see much of it in my mind's eye... Thus, when we studied Hamlet (and Rosencrantz and Guildersten are Dead) as part of my English degree, I insisted on watching the film versions as I couldn't get to live performances.

I've never yet managed to get into Paradise Lost, although I plan to try again (when I'm not quite so busy with writing deadlines), but I will listen to an audiobook version as I read, and hope that helps me to get to grips with it.

Anonymous said...

Language change is totally natural - it's been compared to Darwinian evolution (in fact, Darwin himself wrote that his theory was partially inspired by linguistics). Not all change is because of conquering, but that's certainly one of the big factors (others being immigration, trade, and just plain time).

Of course the BEST example of Saxon/French duality is the "f word", which was the word to use for that, uh, action in Saxon England - only to be pushed into the language of the lower classes by French "copulate".

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, and as to English having a huge word count - of course it does! English is a non-agglutinating language, which means that typically only a few units of meaning (aka morphemes) - or, more often, only one - occur per word. So "cat" has one morpheme, "unfathomable" has three ("un-fathom-able"), but we don't get much higher than that. German, on the other hand, can pack a whole sentence into one word! So, German could be said to have fewer dictionary words, but that doesn't really mean anything.

That said, 'cause English has kind of gotten around, so to speak, so I do agree that it's a very diverse and growing language!

Michele said...

No, it's true that not all language change is the result of conquering, but in this case a pretty wholesale change occurred. And it wasn't just the Anglo Saxon language that was wiped out, but also the majority of the literature that went with it... That is just plain wrong - destroying the culture of the conquered nation can never be right...