Thursday, 25 September 2008

Mind your language

I read recently that the Collins Dictionary is to introduce around 2000 new words into its forthcoming edition. Everything comes at a price, however. The dictionary has published a list of twenty four words that are in danger of being removed unless we start using them.

Some celebrities have taken up the gauntlet. Stephen Fry has adopted "fusby", which apparently means short, stout or squat, and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion favours "skirr", which describes the whirring sound of a bird's wings in flight. My own particular favourite is "Recrement", meaning waste matter. How wonderful to have a language where you can describe someone as an agrestic, olid, niddering old fool. The full list of words can be found here.

I've always been interested in languages. I learnt a bit of French at school (which I can still remember), and also a bit of Russian (which, sadly, I can't, other than to tell you when there is an octopus under your table, comrade). I make it my business when I go abroad to learn a smattering of the language. Apart from giving additional interest to the whole experience of being in a foreign country, I think it's simple politeness to make the effort to converse with persons in their own language. It's certainly far better than the alternative - shout at them in English and they're sure to understand. And speaking the language pays dividends. Why, in Crete, an elderly smallholder gave me a big box of fresh, juicy tomatoes, and all I'd done was wish him a good morning and point out politely how hot the day was.

Another language I learnt at school was Latin. It was that kind of school. It was fascinating to an eleven year old to discover that many of our English words are borrowings from Latin and other languages. The very word language is derived from the Latin lingua. And, were you to use profane language, you would, once again, be borrowing from the Latin. Profane didn't originally refer to something to something "rude" or "dirty". The Latin word profanum literally means "in front of the temple", so in its early modern context, profane meant "something not belonging to the church". For example, any song that wasn't religious (in other words, a hymn, carol or psalm) would have been referred to as a "profane" song. This borrowing of foreign words did not, and does not, always go down well. Back in the 16th century, Sir John Cheke had a particular dislike of the practice. He said:

I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.

So there. In fact, our dear Sir John went as far as to suggest some sturdy, if rather unwieldy, English words designed to combat the Roman invasion. Thus, impenetrable became ungothroughsome, and imponderable was substituted by nottobethoughtuponable.

Despite the long standing differences between England and France, Sir John would have found a firm ally in the shape of the Academie Francaise, the country's body governing the grammar, vocabulary and usage of the French tongue. Its dictionary is regarded as having official status and, albeit the Academie's declarations do not have the force of law, it can and does make pronouncements upon the introduction of "foreign" words. I gather they got their pantalons in a twist over le weekend, but there are no reports on their views of le parking, le chewing gum or le hold up (although I'm not sure whether this refers to a crime or a traffic jam). Apparently the Academie is beside itself with rage at the moment. Why? Because the French government has decreed that a woman minister will be addressed as Madame la Ministre, despite the fact that ministre is a masculine noun, prefaced with le.

Perhaps we should have a British equivalent to the Academie. Once they had excised curry, bungalow, divan, bistro, spaghetti, schadenfreude, espadrilles and every other word we've borrowed over the last couple of thousand years we probably wouldn't have a whole lot left. But, as they say, Ç'est la vie.


Janet said...

Interesting post, Chris.

I worked for French companies (but based in the States) for a total of, erm, 22 years of my oil trading career. I used to find great amusement in their struggle to avoid using English words unless absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile, I took Latin in high school, back in Illinois. (Gives you some idea of how old I am.) I used to joke that the only use it had was helping me read inscriptions on old buildings. Actually, it has helped a great deal with roots of words, looking back more positively.

But what I remember the most about my two years of Latin, under the guidance of Miss Ragsdale, was a little joke she once told us...

Latin is a dead dead language.
It's dead as dead can be.
It killed the Roman soldiers,
And now it's killing me.


chris hale said...

Like the poem, Janet. We had a very similar version which went:

Latin is a language
As dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans
And now it's killing me.

Far from being killed by it, I loved it. When (much later in life) I decided to take an Open University degree, I took all the Roman history courses I could. Now I'm retired I think I'll have a bash at their beginner's Latin course.

Die dulci fruere! (Have a nice day!)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Very nice post Chris. I reckon that if we remove all of the non-English words there will be bugger all left. And what is English anyway? If the original Britons were Celts then we should only be using the Celtic languages ... but there are at least six of them. Even if we revert back to Anglo-Saxon, we'll only be left with a smattering of words. Mostly to do with mud, weather and pigs I suspect.