Friday, 12 March 2021

Placing words in English

Words are like pebbles.  In thousands of years of sliding through our throats they have lost their edges, become smooth and effortless.  Now we are hardly conscious we use them; speech has become an exchange of signifiers - so easy that at times it may even seem to be a direct communication of signifieds.

This is a measure of language's success: it has lost its strangeness, it has passed from being something in itself, to being diaphanous, a means to an end.  And necessarily: everyone has experienced the horror of a familiar word - 'from', say - disintegrating into incomprehensible shards as language reverts to its primitive roots of arbitrary concatenations of sound.  But what we have gained in facility through familiarity we have lost in linguistic racination: with our anaesthesia to the grain and surface of words, we have forfeited the possibility of holding on to their Englishness.  And a land without a tongue is a people without a heart, as every invader bent on subduing utterly a conquered nation knows.

To be sure, the Englishness of the English language is problematic.  More than any other tongue, English has gladly accepted linguistic immigrants: from Latin and Anglo-Norman, from many European languages and finally from the speech of the rest of the world, its embrace of foreign cultures and ideas growing as the British Empire grew.  As a result, some words remain barely assimilated: 'gnosticism' will never be an English word, if only because it is a rare rock whose angular edges are never likely to be smoothed.  And even coinages like 'prestidigitation' - each of whose elements is English enough - will never truly be part of the language because of their factitious polysyllabicity.

This is not to doom the non Anglo-Saxon vocabulary to some kind of chauvinist limbo; many thousands of Romance words have entered the language so deeply, and taken on the native colouring so naturally, that it comes as a shock to discover that they are later invaders - just like the Normans who brought them - words like 'beef' and 'boon'.

Nonetheless it seems clear that the most English of English words do have a recognisable look and sound.  As foreigners still relatively unfamiliar with languages such as French or Italian or German, and with their inflections and orthography, we Anglophones retain a fresh ear and eye for their characteristic forms, for their Frenchness and Germanness.  If we have lost this for the English of everyday speech, where can we hope to find new English words that are paradoxically both unknown to us - and therefore uncommon - and yet which offer the quintessence of the language, the very heart of commonness?

The answer lies in words that swim quietly about in the great sea of English like coelocanths: the place-names.  In Spridlington, Bawdrip, Moze and Lulsley, we feel simultaneously the shock of the unknown and the shock of recognition; names like Wawne, Yackleton, Hodsock and Themelthorpe are clearly totally English, and miraculously we can perceive them as such; in the breathing fossils of Whaplode, Ible, Appledram and Kexbrough, the dead elements of speech come back to life, and we reclaim our linguistic roots.

(1989)

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