Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Battered Homely Thing

A good discussion of the death of languages over on Cassandra Pages. When has a language changed so much that it's ruined?

Languages have souls, I think. Vocabulary isn't much of the core of it -- grammar and syntax are closer to the heart -- but the bedrock couple hundred words may be. If English speakers suddenly started replacing words such as hand, wind, love, or bone, I would be greatly distressed.

In one sense English is already dead. The form of English I love best was destroyed by the Normans nearly a thousand years ago. Half the vocabulary was lost then; a great poetic tradition was forgotten; the spelling was made into the ludicrous mess it remains today. A couple centuries later a strange disease we now call "the great vowel shift" mangled the language still farther, lifting the pitch of all the vowels, making it the most constricted and squeaky of the European languages, and dragging the spelling even farther away from its pronunciation. Onto this mutilated trunk were clumsily grafted branches of French, Latin, and Greek. To someone with a historical linguistic sensitivity Modern English feels inauthentic -- it's a pastiche. My Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero.

But I don't think English has lost its soul, even now. Sky, root, heart, hold. It's had a long hard life; it's a battered, homely thing now, but it's still ours.

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