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Thursday, 5 January 2012

Organic Change or Stability in English?

Language, they say, with some justification, is organic. And, in common with organic structures everywhere, it must grow, develop and experiment with variations, or die. Many of the world's small languages have disappeared, often because their speakers and users refused to adapt to the changes imposed by the developing world. English, considered the most widely spoken language on this extraordinary planet of ours, has some champions who would subject it to the sort of purity that will ultimately suffocate it. On the other hand, there are those who stretch the meanings of words until they become meaningless.

To be a useful method of communication, language needs to maintain some stability. A common example of the changes imposed on English in the relatively recent past concerns the word 'wicked'. Initially stemming from the Old English 'wicca' or the female version, 'wicce', and then evolving into 'witch', this word was initially all about badness and malevolence. Though, even as early as the 17th century it could be taken as meaning 'playfully mischievous or roguish'. Last century, it took on the exact opposite meaning and came to convey the ideas of 'good, brilliant, wonderful' in the mouths of youth.

At the time, I recall being disturbed by this reversal of meaning, which appeared to have the effect of turning communication upside down and causing confusion. But the period of bewilderment proved short and it was soon evident that context would make the intended meaning clear, often depending on who was actually using the word. It continues today to have the meanings of both 'bad' and 'good'. As such, it ought to be an obstacle to comprehension but, except in the most clumsy cases, its meaning is generally obvious from its usage.

Had we employed the same sort of language police as the French have for centuries, the new meaning of the word would have been prevented and the language made poorer by its lack. English, because of its global appeal, is not only able to absorb such changes but actually seems to welcome them. We are blessed with a wide vocabulary with many words borrowed, stolen or high-jacked from other languages. This gives us, as writers, the ability to express our ideas with some niceness (I use the word in its sense of 'accuracy'). If we wish to express an idea for which there's no real English word, we can employ one from a foreign language, knowing that in most cases it will be both understood and accepted. So, to express the idea that a girl is in a state of romantic attachment to a man she intends to marry, we call her a 'fiancée', borrowing the term from our cousins over the Channel. And, is there an English equivalent for that wonderfully expressive German word, 'Schadenfreude'? (For those who don't know, it means enjoying, in a malicious way, the misfortune of another.)

Our common language, evolving from influences of Latin, early French, ancient Greek, the dialects of the Norse invaders, Celtic and Germanic origins, has borrowed words from all over the world. The days when Great Britain ruled a vast empire ensured that we collected many exotic words from lands as diverse as India, Tasmania, Borneo, Argentina, China and Egypt to mention but a few. With the development of the early United States of America, when peoples from all over Europe mingled with the native populations they eventually displaced, many more words were absorbed into the growing language.
It's said that English, as used worldwide, now contains over one million different words. That's one huge mine from which to excavate the words you need to express your ideas with clarity and exactitude.

So, this is a plea for flexibility harnessed to sensible and accurate usage of language. Metaphor and simile encourage writers and readers to expand their understanding of language and, providing such linguistic expeditions don't remove the reader from a recognisable landscape, they can act as a means of broadening horizons for all.

It really would be wicked of you not to indulge in the full splendour of our common language to make your writing as wicked as you can, don't you think?

A question for you to ponder: Why do folk say they 'slept like a baby' when babies wake up so often?

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