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WASHINGTON — When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together, there’s still no one to talk to.
Native Australian Charlie Mungulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of thousands around the world on the brink of extinction.
From rural Australia to Siberia to Oklahoma, languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying, researchers said Tuesday.
While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.
Five hotspots where languages are most endangered were listed Tuesday in a briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society.
In addition to northern Australia, eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest, many native languages are endangered in South America — Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — as well as the area including British Columbia, and the states of Washington and Oregon.
Losing languages means losing knowledge, says K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.
“When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”
As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he estimated.
That means, if the last speaker of many of these vanished tomorrow, the language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no text of any kind, he said.
Harrison is associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem, Ore. He and institute director Gregory D.S. Anderson analyzed the top regions for disappearing languages.
Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, he explained, realizing that other more widely spoken languages are more useful.
The key to getting a language revitalized, he said, is getting a new generation of speakers. He said the institute worked with local communities and tries to help by developing teaching materials and by recording the endangered language.
Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80% of the world’s population while the 3,500 smallest languages account for just 0.2% of the world’s people. Languages are more endangered than plant and animal species, he said.
The hot spots listed at Tuesday’s briefing:
— Northern Australia, 153 languages. The researchers said aboriginal Australia holds some of the world’s most endangered languages, in part because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers. Researchers have documented such small language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker of Amurdag.
— Central South America including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — 113 languages. The area has extremely high diversity, very little documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially less-valued indigenous languages are being knocked out by Spanish or more dominant indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil.
— Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and the states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S., 54 languages. Every language in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund, meaning the youngest speaker is over age 60. An extremely endangered language, with just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on the Siletz reservation in Oregon.
— Eastern Siberian Russia, China, Japan — 23 languages. Government policies in the region have forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages and, as a result, some have only a few elderly speakers.
— Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico — 40 languages. Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. A moribund language of the area is Yuchi, which may be unrelated to any other language in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent.
The research is funded by the Australian government, U.S. National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society and grants from foundations.
Accident: According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary: event without apparent cause, unintentional act, chance, fortune. In its traditional sense, the word was applied to such events as train crashes, boat capsizings, falling over or a sudden attack of sickness and diarrhea. It is still applied to these events and retains the sense of the unexpected.
But modern society is averse to the idea that things can happen by chance; it resents the suggestion that there are events beyond its control. It refuses to accept that unpleasant things can happen without anyone being to blame. So, after any accident, the first demand is for “a full and wide-ranging inquiry” to find out the cause ... and someone to blame. Implicit is the idea that risks can be reduced to zero and that this would be a good thing, whatever the cost. This is encapsulated in the pig-headed recitation of the word “unacceptable” to describe recalcitrant realities. Accidents do not happen by accident any more. Definition by Digby Anderson
Amazing: Largely a journalistic foible. Time after time, I am told that someone has made an amazing attack, an amazing statement or released amazing figures. Not so. They have actually made an attack, a statement or released some statistics. If I am going to be amazed, then I shall decide it. Frederick Forsyth
Community: Formerly referred to the people as a whole and its connotations were friendliness, co-operation and warm-heartedness. Now it has been hijacked by every special interest group going. So we hear of “the black community,” and “the homosexual community.” The Independent once referred to “London’s sado-masochistic community.”
The new usage is far from benign. It is self-defeating, for it does not produce the old usage’s homely sense of unity, but actually creates a ghetto mentality. It exactly reverses the word’s original meaning. In the mouths of 100 special interest groups, community now means “sect.” Peter Mullen
Consent: Compulsion (as in “age of consent”). David Womersley
Diversity: The property of differing in any respect (especially race, sex or sexuality). Usually used in reference to a group. However by extension, it may refer to an individual characteristic, as in the case of the Harvard undergraduate who, when students were asked to list what they considered their virtues, wrote: “I am diverse.”
As a virtue, diversity bears the peculiar advantages of needing to be neither acquired nor practised, but merely possessed, and of being immediately available to anyone (at least anyone who does not live an unassuming or traditional life). Mark Shiffman
Excellence: If excellence has to do with excelling, it is a comparative term, and those institutions that are really excellent need not advertise the fact. By implication, then, anything that proclaims itself as excellent is probably not, and, by definition, not all our children can go to excellent schools. “Promoting excellence for everyone” is an incoherent goal that only a society of edgy and incoherent mediocrity could espouse. Anthony O’Hear
Intimate: Once a cherished state of close but innocent friendship; now taken to allude usually to sexual congress. Bryan Wilson
Just: An adverbial qualification that diminishes the seriousness of the conduct or object it qualifies. Thus “just a slap” means “I broke her jaw”; “just burglary” means “I have broken into 78 houses”; and “just cars” means “I have stolen 219 cars.” “Just heroin” or “just crack” are the correct answers to the question: “Do you take drugs?” Theodore Dalrymple
Need: Something without which you cannot be what you essentially are. Human beings need food and water to survive; they need company to become fully human, and they need morality to live a happy life. Apart from that, they desire many things, few of which are needs. They desire a house, a car, sexual and material success, even children. These are not needs but desires.
By describing them as needs, you create a prima facie assumption that there is something wrong with a society in which people do not possess them. Hence the constant revision of the socialistic accounts of what people need -- a revision that ensures that, in any state of society conceivable, there will always be “needy” people. Roger Scruton
Precautionary principle: An excuse for blocking any change, even change for the better, on the grounds, “better safe than sorry.” By maximizing potential unknown dangers and ignoring potential unknown benefits, those who embrace “precaution” argue against all technological and economic progress. The precautionary principle would have prevented the invention of vaccines, antibiotics, railways, computers and hybrid maize. Matt Ridley
Social: Adjective that automatically reverses the meaning of any noun to which it is attached. Thus a “social market economy” is not a market economy, a “social worker” is not a worker, “social democracy” is not democracy and “social justice” is not justice -- indeed, its pursuit leads to injustice. Christie Davies
Unsustainable: No longer means that the practice to which it refers cannot continue. Instead, as in “unsustainable development,” it means that the speaker does not like the practice and hopes it will soon end. Michael Mosbacher
Violence: A word of abuse applied by ideologues to anything they don’t like. Thus the perverted expressions: the violence of poverty, the violence of capitalism, the violence of silence, the violence of language, the violence of inequality and the violence of global warming. Graeme Newman
Another day, another dead language. A rousing new report by researcher Payal Sampat of the Worldwatch Institute bemoans the “cultural homogeneity” spreading across the Earth as thousands of human languages head toward extinction.
“Today,” writes Sampat, “the world’s speech is increasingly homogenized. The 15 most common languages are now on the lips of half the world’s people; the top 100 languages are used by 90% of humanity.” Sampat’s is just the latest nostalgia for “linguistic diversity” (the kissing cousin of “biological diversity”) to have surfaced in the academic press. Inevitably such articles drive their authors to the brink of bathos: The author himself is almost always a “victim” of cultural imperialism, his village’s unique dialect of Farsi or some other distinct tongue having been snuffed out by the march of civilization.
“In Bombay, where I grew up,” says Sampat, “I used these languages everyday. To get by on the streets, to get directions, to interact with people — I had to be able to speak Marathi.” But he “sensed from a very early age that Kutchi wasn’t useful in any obvious way.” Alas, he abandoned the language of his ancestors, “and chose instead to operate in the linguistic mainstream.”
Sampat is not alone. Whatever the original number of languages in existence at the end of the Ice Age (estimated in the tens of thousands), we are down to about 6,800 today. Nearly half of those languages are now spoken by fewer than 2,500 people. At the current rate of decline, linguists estimate that, by the end of this century, at least half of the world’s present languages will have disappeared. Michael Krauss, a linguist at the Alaskan Native Language Center, thinks things are even worse than that; he estimates that only 600 of the world’s languages are “safe” from extinction, insofar as they are still being taught to children.
What’s especially interesting about the current rate of linguistic attrition is that it vastly exceeds that of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when anti-colonial writers decried British imperialism and the culturally repressive policies of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Nowadays, in spite of bilingual-education programs and “diversity” initiatives in the public schools, most aboriginal languages in North America are on a downward slalom course toward oblivion.
And to this I say: “Hooray!” Why so? Because today we can chalk up trends in cultural assimilation almost exclusively to increased labor mobility and modern communications technologies, not to farmers stomping over hunter-gatherers, or to more venomous tribes overriding weaker ones by force. What’s more, we now have indubitable evidence that government efforts to shore up dying languages are doomed to fail. Most of the world’s books, newspapers, and e-mails are written in English, which is now spoken by more people as a second language (350 million) than as a native tongue (322 million). This is reason to celebrate. Just like immigrants who trade their ancestral culture to reap the financial promise of a new land, speakers of dying tongues are rational economic actors: They have traded in their indigenous language in order to participate in the global economy.
Too many folks on the cultural Left, however, refuse to treat human beings as rational agents. My home country of Canada, awash in failed leftist policies, is a case in point. Canadian native leaders recently called the extinction of “First Nations” dialects a “state of emergency,” and lobbied the federal Liberals to inaugurate programs to resuscitate these ancestral tongues. The Canadian Heritage department has committed tens of millions of dollars in “language preservation” to native communities. And nobody beats the province of Quebec when it comes to linguistic protectionism: Last month, the ever-vigilant office de la langue française charged Stanley and Muriel Reid, fifth-generation farmers from Godmanchester, Que., for the crime of creating an English-only website that sells maple syrup.
Should we put people in jail on the altar of “linguistic continuity”? For that is the logical consequence of linguistic preservationism.
Anthropologists try to skate around this fact with hyperbole and theatrics; the scholar Jared Diamond says the most common way to see a language disappear “is to kill almost all its speakers.” This may have been true in the 1800s, but not today. And what about the argument that language loss hurts our ability to understand our past? Ironically, private enterprise and the Internet, so often blamed for hastening globalization and Western imperialism, may hold the answer. SIL International, a Texas company with a huge linguistics database, catalogues more than 6,700 languages across 228 countries. The website of the Yamada Language Center at the University of Oregon provides connections to online learning facilities for 115 dying and dead languages, including Basque, Navajo, and Old English. Ancient documents written in these languages will forever be accessible to decipherment. Even unwritten languages can now be transliterated phonetically and stored on audiotape.
All of us, as infants, once spoke a unique dialect, a mixture of parental language, baby talk, misarticulation, and inaccurate syntax. When we grow up, we leave our “mother tongue” behind, even though its echoes remain with us and move us at unexpected moments. Emotion aside, we forego the embrace of childhood and move on to learn the language of our peer group. When we become grown-ups, we “lay aside childish things.” And so it is with dead languages. They simply outgrow their usefulness.
Noam Chomsky has endured many attempts to disprove his widely respected theories of language, but never have any of them come from a 3-ounce bird.
The European starling, a tiny virtuoso, has the ability to learn and recognize a feature of grammar that has long been thought to be unique to human languages, researchers report in a new study.
Chomsky isn’t buying it, however.
What humans can do
A common characteristic of human grammar is inserting words and clauses within a sentence, without limit.
For example, “Oedipus ruled Thebes” can become “Oedipus, who killed his father, ruled Thebes” or “Oedipus, who killed his father, whom he met on the road from Delphi, ruled Thebes,” ad infinitum.
More simply stated, you can insert as many brackets as you want within a sentence as long as there are as many brackets on the right as there are on the left.
Chomskian linguists believe that this characteristic, known as recursive center embedding, is a universal feature of human language, and the ability to process it forms the core of human language ability.
“Our research is a refutation of the canonical position that what makes human language unique is a singular ability to comprehend these kinds of patterns,” said the leader of the new study, Timothy Gentner of the University of California at San Diego.
How the study was done
Gentner and colleagues generated 16 artificial starling songs, which followed two different patterns.
Similar to human grammar, the first set allowed for a sound to be inserted in the middle of a song, a simple form of recursive center embedding.
The next set of eight songs followed the finite state rule, whereby a sound could only be added at the beginning or end, a type of structure attributed to non-human communications.
After more than 10,000 trials, nine birds eventually learned how to distinguish the patterns of the two songs.
[“We were dumbfounded that they could do as well as they did,” Gentner told the Associated Press. “It’s clear that they can do it.”]
To see if the birds could use the same rules to distinguish patterns of longer pieces, the researchers then subjected the birds to longer strings of song. And the birds were able to make the distinctions.
[Gentner said he was so unprepared for the starlings’ successful learning that he hadn’t bothered to record the songs the starlings sang in response.
“They might have been singing them back,” Gentner told the AP.]
This suggests that the starling has to have memory and some recognition of pattern, explained study team member Howard Nusbaum from the University of Chicago.
[Jeffrey Elman, a professor of cognitive science at UCSD, who was not part of the Gentner research team, told the AP that the experiment showed that language and animal cognition is much more complicated than scientists once thought and that there is no “single magic bullet” that separates man from beast.]
While the new findings, reported in the April 27 issue of the journal Nature, might suggest that humans and some animals share basic levels of pattern recognition, many levels of linguistic complexity may not be described in this research.
Chomsky not convinced
“The article is based on an elementary mathematical error,” said Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They are overlooking the fact that there are many intermediate systems that are ignored in mathematical linguistics because their properties are empirically irrelevant.”
Based on other work done 50 years ago by George Miller, Chomsky thinks further research would show that the birds are not grasping linguistics in the way the new study concludes.
“It has nothing remotely to do with language; probably just with short-term memory,” Chomsky told LiveScience.
[Marc Hauser, director of Harvard University’s Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, said Gentner’s study showed that “some of the cognitive sources that we deploy may be shared with other animals,” according to the AP. But he added that it doesn’t prove that the starlings are grasping the necessary semantics for full language ability.]
The ability for the starlings to sort through the patterns may also just be a benefit of natural selection, a process responsible for the origin of new species and the adaptation of organisms to their environments, as proposed by Charles Darwin.
“That aside, if someone could show that other animals had the basic property of human language, it would be of very little interest to the biology of language, but would be a puzzle for general biology,” Chomsky said. “It’s expected that if a species has some ability that has real selectional advantage, it will use it.”
Inventing English, A Portable History of the Language
A new book from Stanford professor Seth Lerer traces the origins of the English language — from Anglo-Saxons to Eminem.
Caedmon learns to sing
A new book, Inventing English, traces the origins of our language—from the Anglo-Saxons to Eminem. In the excerpt below, author Seth Lerer describes how a 7th-century Yorkshire cowherd created the earliest surviving English poem.
Some time in the seventh century, probably between the years 657 and 680, a Yorkshire cowherd learned to sing. Social gatherings among the peasantry were clearly common at the time. Often, labourers and herders would gather in the evenings to eat and drink, and a harp would be passed among them. But when the harp came to Caedmon, he could not sing. Shamed by his inability, he avoided the gatherings, until one evening an angel came to him in a vision. “Caedmon,” the angel called to him by name. “Sing me something.” “I cannot,” replied the cowherd, “for I do not know how to sing, and for that reason I left the gathering.” But the angel replied, “Still, you can sing.” “Well, what shall I sing about?” replied Caedmon. “Sing to me about the creation of the world.” And so, miraculously, Caedmon raised his voice and offered this song in the language of his time and place.
The man who invented English literature
Almost from the moment of his death in 1400, Chaucer came to be revered as the inventor of a new, poetic language. His earliest imitators, the poets John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve, saw him as “purifying” English from the “rudeness” of the Anglo-Saxon. At the end of the 15th century, England’s first printer, William Caxton, considered Chaucer the “first founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in English,” while at the end of the 16th century, the poet Edmund Spenser could praise his forebear as “the well of English undefiled.” Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, poets, historians and critics found in Chaucer the first stirrings of a literary vernacular, and 19th-and 20th-century academics granted him nothing less than revolutionary status: “He decided to invent a literary English,” writes one, while for another, Chaucer “began a revolution in poetic diction.”
Shakespeare’s very name evokes the acme of the English language. People who have never seen his plays know phrases such as “sound and fury,” “the most unkindest cut,” “ripeness is all” and “to be, or not to be.” His tragic characters have helped define what it means to be a human being. His comic episodes make audiences laugh four centuries later. His sonnets stand as the benchmarks of love poetry. More than any other writer in the language, Shakespeare used the resources of English to their full. He coined nearly 6,000 new words; he juxtaposed Anglo-Saxon and Latin words for striking effect; he wrestled with the syntax of everyday speech until it almost broke.
A man and his Dictionary
Was Samuel Johnson mad? We tend, these days, to pathologize the past, to understand creativity in illness. Robert Schumann’s mania, Virginia Woolf’s depression, Vincent van Gogh’s psychosis, Isaac Newton’s Asperger’s syndrome — all are invoked to frame imaginative works in ways that we can explain, or explain away.
For modern students, Johnson’s quirks evoke more than the eccentricities of intellection. His great biographer, James Boswell, records him struggling to get out of a doorway, only to at last hurl himself through (a sign, some think, of an obsessive-compulsive disorder); he tells tales of Johnson muttering and sputtering, hands flailing as he holds court in the coffee house or tavern (a sign, some think, of Tourette’s syndrome); and he recounts, as Johnson himself often did, despair at failing to accomplish anything of note or taking on great projects that could never be completed (a sign, some think, too, of depression). For the clinically minded reader, all of the characteristics appear at the beginning of the preface to the Dictionary Johnson published in 1755.
“It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pionier [sic] of literature; doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.”
There is an unmistakable sadness to these lines, a sense that the lexicographer toils lowly, that he cannot be rewarded for his true accomplishments, that all he can aspire to is lack of blame, rather than praise. But there is, at the level of the clause, an almost obsessive rhetorical parallelism. Phrases concatenate on one another here; alliterations ring (“slave of science,” “remove rubbish”); assonances chime (“success ? applause,” “humble drudge,” “author ? aspire”). It is as if the rhetoric reveals the man, as if these feints expose his compulsions in their verbs: toil, driven, attracted, exposed, disgraced, punished.
From the start, Johnson’s Dictionary feeds our need to see the person in the work, and generations of his readers (long before anyone would diagnose him medically) have found him at such moments “captivating” and “enticing.” Though there were dictionary makers before Johnson, it was he who effectively invented the persona of the lexicographer and, in the process, reinvented himself as the great figure out of literary history we know him to be.
Of course, Johnson’s Dictionary did more than present a linguistic persona. It created the public idea of the dictionary as the arbiter of language use. It made such a book the kind of object everyone would have and use. More pointedly, it shaped the English of its time and for a century afterward. It regularized spelling and grammatical forms. It codified and sanctioned pronunciations. It broadened the vocabulary of everyday speech, while at the same time seeking to excise slang and colloquial expressions from polite discourse. And, in its use of literary examples to illustrate word uses, forms, and histories, the Dictionary affirmed a canon of English literature and critical appreciation: It was both a product of and subsequent teacher of taste.
In all these areas, Johnson set the mould for later lexicographers: from Noah Webster and his Dictionary of the American Language (first published in 1828), to the founders and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (published from 1888 to 1933), who, in fact, first called their work the New English Dictionary — for the old one was Johnson’s.
Generations of readers have found the personal and the technical in the Dictionary; but what we may find, too, is the elegiac. Johnson misses things: misses the sureness of his original project laid out in his previously published Plan of the Dictionary; he misses stability in language and life. His evocations in the preface to the Dictionary have the flavor of a paradise now lost:
“I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.”
Johnson began much like, perhaps, Milton’s own God, who made order out of chaos and brought light with but a word. “When I took the first survey of my undertaking,” he writes in the preface, “I found our speech copious without order, and energetic without rules: Wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.”
From Milton, too, Johnson derived an ideal of figurative language. The great Miltonic similes, with their extended yoking of disparate things into new figurative forms, gave Johnson something of an inkling not of English’s linguistic past but of its future. They show a move from technical and literal senses to metaphorical connotations.
Johnson, in fact, took it almost as a general principle of linguistic change that technical words become metaphorical ones. “The original sense of words,” Johnson wrote in the preface, “is often driven out of use by their metaphorical acceptations, yet must be inserted for the sake of a regular origination. Thus, I know not whether ardour is used for material heat, or whether flagrant in English ever signifies the same with the burning. Yet such are the primitive ideas of these words.”
Look up “ardent” in Nathan Bailey’s 1721 Dictionary and you find: “hot as it were burning, very hot; also vehement, eager, zealous.” Bailey makes the psychological meaning a special instance of a more general definition.
Johnson, by contrast, makes the scientific meaning the primary, natural one, and he relegates the psychological meanings to secondary status through his numbering arrangement. But if we look at the whole arc of definitions, running from ardent, through ardently, to ardour (as presented in the accompanying figure, drawn from Johnson’s Dictionary) we can see vividly the move not just from the technical to the figurative, but from the philosophical and natural to the imaginative and literary.
Ardent begins with Newton’s Opticks, and Newton’s “ardent spirits” are not creatures out of fantasy but volatile liquids. Now, move to definition two and see how Dryden illustrates “ardent eyes” — still burning, but somewhat figuratively. Definition three is the most figurative, “passionate,” and the illustration comes from Prior’s poetry. Then, we see the sequence again in Ardour: from technical and prose, through Dryden once again, to Pope, and finally to Milton.
These really are, now, ardent spirits, and the path to Milton in these quotations is always, too, a path from darkness to light, a path of observation, beaming sun, and feeling. It is as if Johnson moves us from the chemical hell of Newton’s burning lake to Milton’s “up-springing light” and the vision of the “midst of heav’n.”
The heart of Johnson’s Dictionary, as his life, lies in his reading, and in Milton, Locke, Shakespeare, and many other writers he found illustrations not just of words but worlds. Johnson was always tracing out the original, seeking to signify himself, finding the words that matched the thought. His reading sought to match the proper quotations with meanings. If he was mad, or miserable, it may have been out of the recognition that his work, in any form, would always be unfinished.
“No dictionary of a living tongue,” he wrote at the conclusion to the preface, “can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away.”
“A whole life,” he went on, “cannot be spent on syntax and etymology,” for “even a whole life would not be sufficient.” Johnson’s awakenings, in the end, are less those of a poet doomed to rise a lexicographer than of an 18th-century linguist, incapable of fixing words; or of a patronized poet who wakes to find himself a modern author. Like some man trying desperately to get out of a doorway, he realizes that all he can do is hurl himself forward into whatever halls await him. - Excerpted, with permission, from Inventing English, A Portable History of the Language, by Seth Lerer. ?2007 Columbia University Press.
History of the English Language
(36 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture)
Course No. 800
You speak English every day. But how much do you know about its long and fascinating history?
These 36 lectures are a thorough and absorbing survey of English, from its origins as a Germanic dialect to the literary and cultural achievements of its 1,500-year history to the state of American speech and global English today.
Do you know where English, the language in which you communicate each and every day, came from? Do you know how it evolved? Why we spell the way we do? Why we pronounce words the way we do? Why we use the very words we do?
Answers to those Mysteries of Spelling
Much of the charm of this course is in its wealth of fascinating detail:
* Where do the silent “k” and “g” in “knight” come from?
* Why could Chaucer and Shakespeare use multiple negatives without anyone missing their meaning?
* Why did Isaac Newton take time out from physics to research spelling?
* How did a British colonial official first realize that languages spoken from Britain to India were deeply related?
* How do the shared roots of those “Indo-European” languages give us a window into prehistory?
As you trace the development of spoken and written English, you’ll learn how words denote social rank, how and why dialects arise and interact, and how the Anglo-Saxons, the Norman invasion, and British colonialism each left their marks on the words we use every day.
You’ll learn, too, why spelling meant so much to Renaissance schoolmasters, and how Noah Webster, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, H. L. Mencken, and others helped to give us our familiar American English.
You’ll also explore the regional American dialects that still thrive and how many of them preserve centuries-old features of British English that have long since disappeared in the British Isles.
Also, you will discover how hot topics such as multiculturalism and the official status of English were first discussed in the courts of medieval English kings, and pose intriguing questions about the sort of English our children and grandchildren will speak.
Hear Changing Dialects through 1,500 Years of English
Professor Seth Lerer is a world-renowned scholar of Chaucer, and he has spent most of his professional career immersed in the origins of our language.
To illustrate various points, he often reads aloud in the appropriate dialect and accent, whether it be in the Old English of Caedmon (the earliest-known poet in English), the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or even the Mississippi River dialect of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
“Our goal here,” says Professor Lerer, “is to understand the great impact that studying the history of English can have on our appreciation of social, cultural, literary, and linguistic change. With these lectures, the student can find the history of English embedded in the words we use, the literature we read, and the everyday lives we lead. We will learn about the past, but also see the making of our own present.”
A Broad Literary and Historical Approach
Professor Lerer has crafted his course to have an uncommonly broad appeal. Should you, for example, have a strong literary bent, you will be interested in Dr. Lerer’s discussion of Chaucer’s multilingual mastery, Shakespeare’s linguistic innovations, and Walt Whitman’s particular genius for employing poetry to change the language.
Professor Lerer reads aloud from works by these renowned authors and many others to illustrate his lecture points and ensure that you understand each author’s contribution to the evolution of the language.
Professor Lerer also explains in detail the impact the Bible, the great Dictionary of Samuel Johnson, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary had on the growth and change of English.
The History of the English Language also includes technical components. Professor Lerer elucidates a number of key linguistic concepts, among them Grimm’s Law, the Great Vowel Shift that swept Britain between 1400 and 1600, and the stimulating intellectual theories of Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics.
In addition, Professor Lerer defines and illustrates terms such as etymology, lexis, morphology, philology, pidgin, and dialect, giving you a basic technical proficiency in linguistics.
“We look for affirmation of the self in every dictionary and in every work of grammar,” says Dr. Lerer. “Do we understand the way we function by reading the grammar book? And in reading the grammar book, are we also learning something about society, about the mind, and about good and bad behavior in the large?”
INVENTING ENGLISH: A PORTABLE HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
INTRODUCTION: FINDING ENGLISH, FINDING US (excerpt)
I grew up on a street full of languages. I heard Yiddish every day from my parents and grandparents and from the families of my friends. There was Italian around the corner, Cuban Spanish down the block, Russian in the recesses of the subway station. Some of my earliest memories are of their sounds. But there were also words of what seemed to be my own family’s making and that I have found in no dictionaries: konditterei, a strange blend of Yiddish and Italian calibrated to describe the self-important café set; vachmalyavatet, a tongue-twister used to signify complete exhaustion; lachlat, a cross between a poncho and a peacoat that my father pointed out one afternoon.
Still, there was always English, always the desire, in my father’s father’s idiom, to be a “Yenkee.” My mother was a speech therapist in the New York City schools; my father, a history and English teacher. For the ﬁrst decade of my life, we lived a dream of bettering ourselves through English. We tried to lose the accent of the immigrant. We memorized poetry. Days I would spend with Walt Whitman (de facto poet laureate of Brooklyn) until I was called in, O Captain-ing together with him straight to supper. I read Beowulf in junior high, and in the arc of Anglo-Saxon or the lilt of Chaucer’s Middle English I found words that shared the Germanic roots of Yiddish. There was that preﬁx for the participle, ge-, in all those languages. If Grendel’s mother was gemyndig, mindful, remembering, harboring a grudge, then so too was my mother. Everything in my family was gehacktet—ground up, hacked to bits, whether it was the chicken livers that we spread on toast or the troubles that beset us all (the Yiddish phrase “gehacktet tsuris,” hacked up troubles, has always stayed with me. I think of Grendel’s leavings—the dismembered bodies of the Danes—with no more apt phrase).
At Oxford, I studied for a degree in medieval English languages and linguistics. J. R. R. Tolkien and W. H. Auden had died only a couple of years before I arrived, and Oxford in the 1970s had an elegiac quality about it. Tolkien and Auden were the two poles of its English studies: the ﬁrst philological, medieval, and fantastic; the second, emotive, modern, and all too real. My tutors were their students and their self-appointed heirs. I learned the minutiae of philology, details whose descriptions had an almost incantatory magic: Frisian fronting, aesh one and aesh two, lengthening in open syllables. I went to bed dreaming about the Ormulum and the orthoepists. And then, one evening in the spring of 1977, in some grotty dining hall, I heard the poets Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney read. Heaney got up, all red-faced and smiling, brilliant in his breath. He read poems about bog men—ancient Germanic people who had been preserved in peat for ﬁfteen hundred years. Twenty-ﬁve years later, I found in Heaney’s Beowulf translation what I had felt on that evening: the sense that the study of the word revealed not just a history of culture but a history of the self. “I had undergone,” Heaney writes of his study of Old English in the introduction to his Beowulf, “something like illumination by philology.”
Philology means “love of language,” but for scholars it connotes the discipline of historical linguistic study. For Seamus Heaney, or for you or me, philology illuminates the history of words and those who speak them. My goal in this book is to illuminate: to bring light into language and to life. Whether you grew up in New York or New Mexico, whether your ﬁrst words were in this or any other tongue, you are reading this book in the language of an early-twenty-ﬁrst-century American. Writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Washington Irving called America a “logocracy”—a country of words. We all still live in a logocracy—invented then and reinvented everyday by citizens of language like ourselves.
This is a book about inventing English (invent, from the Latin invenire, to come upon or ﬁnd). Each of its chapters illustrates how people found new ways to speak and write; how they dealt with the resources of language of their time and place; and how, through individual imagination, they transformed those resources into something uniquely personal. These chapters may be read in sequence, as you read a textbook or a novel; or they may be read as individual essays, each one suitable for bed or as a pause in the day’s tasks. My book, therefore, is less a history of English in the traditional sense than it is an episodic epic: a portable assembly of encounters with the language. Each episode recalls a moment when a person or a group ﬁnds something new or preserves something old; when someone writes down something that exempliﬁes a change; when the experience of language, personally or professionally, stands as a deﬁning moment in the arc of speech.
All of us ﬁnd or invent our language. We may come up with new sentences never heard before. We may use words in a unique way. But we are always ﬁnding our voice, locating old patterns or long-heard expressions, reaching into our thesaurus for the right term. And in inventing English, we are always inventing ourselves—ﬁnding our place among the welter of the words or in the swell of sounds that is the ocean of our tongue.
And this, it seems to me, is what is new about this book—its course between the individual experience and literary culture, between the details of the past and the drama of the present, between the story of my life I tell here and the stories you may make out of your own. Histories of the English language abound, and different readers ﬁnd themselves in each. Scholars research and write out of the great six-volume Cambridge History of the English Language. Teachers work from textbooks such as Albert C. Baugh and Thomas M. Cable’s History of the English Language. The interested public has had, for the past half century, books ranging from Mario Pei’s The Story of the English Language, to Anthony Burgess’s A Mouthful of Air, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, and the illustrated companion to the PBS series The Story of English. A university professor such as David Crystal has sought wider audiences for his arguments in The Stories of English. And I have spent the last decade addressing listeners and viewers of my lecture series prepared for the Teaching Company, The History of the English Language. I have spoken to college students, adult education classes, social clubs, and professional organizations. The fact remains that people of all vocations or politics are fascinated by the history of English, and my book invites the reader to invest in his or her (and my own) fascination with the word.
I think that we are fascinated by English not only because of how it has changed over time but because of how it changes now. Within a single person’s lifetime, words shift their meaning; pronunciations differentiate themselves; idioms from other tongues, from popular culture, and from commerce inﬂect our public life. English is in ﬂux. E-mail and the Internet have altered the arc of our sentences. Much has been made of all these changes: by the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg in his provocative radio and newspaper essays (collected in his book, The Way We Talk Now), or by the journalist William Saﬁre in his weekly New York Times Magazine column. For all the nuance of their observations, however, neither of these commentators (nor really anyone else) locates our current changes in the larger history of English. The shifts we see today have historical precedents. Our debates about standards and dialects, politics and pronunciation recall arguments by pedagogues and poets, lexicographers and literati, from the Anglo-Saxon era of the tenth century, through the periods of medieval, Renaissance, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society. This book therefore grows out of my conviction that to understand a language it is necessary to appreciate its history. We speak and spell for reasons that are often lost to us. But we can rediscover these reasons.
This book recovers answers to our current questions, and it illustrates how language is a form of social behavior central to our past and present lives. Throughout its historical survey, this book sets out to raise some basic questions for the study of our language—questions that have been asked at all times in its history.
Is there, or should there be, a “standard English”? Should it be deﬁned as the idiom of the educated, the sound of the city-dweller, the style of the business letter? As early as the tenth century, teachers in the monastic schools of Anglo-Saxon England asked this question. Some claimed there should be rules for spelling, speech, and usage. Such rules were grounded in a particular dialect of Old English—the one that was geographically central to the region of the king’s court and the church’s administration. Similar attentions to dialect and standards were the subject of debates throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Was there, asked teachers and students alike, a particular regional form of English that should form a national standard? Should we write the way we speak? Should speech display one’s education (and thus something that could be learned) or should it reveal one’s class and region (and thus something that reﬂected birth)? In asking questions such as these, teachers and scholars throughout history have raised another major question. Should the study of language be prescriptive or descriptive? Dictionaries, for example, record spelling, pronunciation, meaning, and usage. Are they simply recording habits of language or are they also codifying them? Isn’t any description also a prescription? When we present the features of a language—and when we do so through authoritative venues such as dictionaries, school texts, or public journalism—are we simply saying how we speak and write or are we also saying how we should speak and write?
Few debates about standards and prescription have been so fraught, especially in English, as those on spelling. Why do we spell the way we do? Why is there such a difference between spelling and pronunciation? As this book illustrates, English spelling is historical. It preserves older forms of the language by using conservative spellings. English spelling is also etymological: that is, it preserves the earlier forms of words even when those forms no longer correspond to current speech. We spell words such as knight or through in these ways because we maintain an old convention of spelling these words in their earliest forms (in Chaucer’s time, they would have been pronounced “k-nicht” and “throoch”). In Britain, the disparity between spelling and pronunciation can be even more extreme: a name such as Featherstonehugh is now pronounced “Fanshaw.” A city such as Worcester (pronounced “Wooster”) preserves the remnants of an Old English form: originally, Wigoraceaster (ceaster, originally from Latin, castrum, meaning a fort or a town; Wigora referring to a clan or tribe in ancient England: hence, the town of the Wigors). These habits are the legacy of medieval scribes, Renaissance schoolmasters, and eighteenth-century dictionary makers who ﬁxed spelling and pronunciation according to particular ideals of language history, educational attainment, or social class. There was a time when English and American men and women spelled much as they spoke. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, English spelling and pronunciation had divorced themselves from one another. Spelling had become a system all its own.
The history of English pronunciation is a history of sound changes. The periods we call Old English, Middle English, and Modern English were distinguished not just by vocabulary, grammar, or idiom but also by pronunciation. Scholars of our language have codiﬁed sets of sound changes that, in particular historical periods, created systematic shifts in the English speech. For example, words that had a long a sound in Old English changed their pronunciation over time, so that by the time of Chaucer they had a long o sound. Thus Old English ban became bone; ham became home; twa become two (now pronounced like “too”). Old English had consonant clusters at the beginnings of words (hl-, hw-, hr-) that were simpliﬁed by the Middle English period. Thus hlud became loud, hwæt became what, hring became ring. Sometimes, sounds were twisted around (this phenomenon is known as metathesis—the same thing that makes children mispronounce spaghetti as “psghetti,” or that generates dialect pronunciations of ask into “aks”). The Old English word for bird was brid; the word for third was thrid. Contact with languages, especially with French after the Norman Conquest, provoked changes in pronunciation. Contacts among different regional dialects also provoked changes. The famous Great Vowel Shift—the change in the pronunciation of English long vowels—that occurred in the ﬁfteenth century may have been due, in part, to new contacts among different dialect groups of late Middle English. Different dialects pronounced, say, the long u sound in Middle English differently; eventually a new form settled out as a double sound (or diphthong), usually written ou. Thus, mus became mous; hus became house; lus became louse. In addition to these historical changes, regional dialects survived in England, and American English descends from several of them. We need to understand how American English developed from these particular regions, and how these dialects were separated and later came into contact, after the periods of colonial settlement.
Finally, there are questions about grammar. Anyone who has studied another language, especially another European language, will know that English grammar seems “simple.” We have no grammatical gender of nouns, as French, German, Spanish, and other languages do. We do not have case endings: that is, we do not use different endings to show that nouns are subjects, direct objects, or indirect objects in sentences. Our verbs end in a relatively limited set of forms. Why did this happen? Old English was, like its contemporary European languages, a highly inﬂected language. Meaning was determined by word endings that signaled the number and gender of nouns; whether they were the subject, direct object, or indirect object in sentences; and whether relationships of agency or action operated among nouns and verbs (we now use prepositions for this function). Verbs were classed in complex groups, each with different kinds of forms or endings. Sometimes, tense could be indicated by the ending of a verb (talk, talked); sometimes, it was indicated by a change in the root vowel of the verb (run, ran). Some of these features do survive in Modern English, but the history of the language as a whole is, generally speaking, a story of a shift from an inﬂected to an uninﬂected language. Meaning in a sentence is now determined by word order. “The man loves the woman” is a very different statement from “The woman loves the man.” But in Old English the statements “Se monn lufiad done wif” and “done wif lufiad se monn” say the same thing. What matters are the grammatical cases (here, the nominative, or the subject case, signaled by the article se, and the accusative, or direct object case, signaled by the article done), not the order of the words.
But English has not completely lost these features. In fact, it preserves, in what might be called “fossilized” forms, certain very old patterns, endings, and inﬂections. Some regional British and American dialects preserve old forms, often because their speakers have been geographically or socially isolated for a long time. Some great works of literature—the King James Bible of 1611, the plays of Shakespeare from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the novels of Charles Dickens from the mid-nineteenth century—deliberately preserve forms of the language that were deemed old-fashioned in their own time. Biblical English, for example, is full of old verb forms like hath and doth (even though we know from the evidence of letters, schoolbooks, and works of literature that people were saying “has” and “does” by the early seventeenth century). Shakespeare is using double negatives and comparatives (e.g., “the most unkindest cut of all”) even as they are passing out of common speech. And Dickens’s characters spout forms and phrases that echo a linguistic past preserved in little pockets of class or region (witness, for example, Joe Gargery in Great Expectations: “I hope Uncle Pumblechook’s mare mayn’t have set a forefoot on a piece o’ ice, and gone down”).
The experience of English and American literature is, therefore, a linguistic as well as an aesthetic one. To illustrate the history of the English language, I will often draw on examples from poetry, prose ﬁction, drama, and personal narrative. To understand that history is to give us greater access to the imaginative scope of poets, playwrights, novelists, and philosophers of the past. If we are worried about language, we are also worried about literature: about the so-called canon of writers, about what we all should read and teach, about where our literature, not just the English or American language, is going. To deal with questions such as these, we need to understand how literature engages with the history of language. Often, word origins or etymologies can be a source of stimulus or humor for a writer. Often, too, literary works play with dialect. In many ways, the history of American literature—from Washington Irving, through Mark Twain, to Norman Mailer, to Toni Morrison—is a history of recording and reﬂecting on the differences in American language. Those differences are not always simply regional; they embrace race, class, gender, and social standing.
We always hear the history of English, whether we know it or not. For speakers and writers, for readers of literature, Web surfers and e-mailers, this book sets out to provide a portable history of the language and in the process to provoke us to consider histories of ourselves.
Cows and calves, pigs and sheep are English until we eat them. We’d balk if offered “roast cow” for dinner. Since the 18th century, our meats have demanded French provenance to become palatable. Beef and veal, pork and mutton — deriving from boeuf, veau, porc, and mouton — undergo linguistic marination well before reaching the dining table. The split in usage is historic, dating from the Norman Conquest. Then, as Sir Walter Scott noted, the Anglo-Saxon raised the food while the Norman Frenchman ate it. This is surely exaggerated but the distinction retains its force. A ragout of pork is one thing, pig stew quite another.
This isn’t just squeamishness. It reflects the remarkable voracity of the English language which over the centuries has wolfed down words, idioms, and grammatical structures from conquerors and conquered alike: Latin from the Roman legions, Old Norse from the Viking invaders, French from the Normans entered English ear ly and swelled our word-hoard Later, under the British Empire thousands of exotic terms, from curry to mango to pyjamas, be came so domesticated as to seem indigenous.
This omnivorous linguistic ap petite forms one of the principal themes of Seth Lerer’s wonderful “Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language” (Columbia University Press, 305 pages, $24.95), and yet, it’s far from the whole story. Mr. Lerer deepens his discussion of outside influences on the language with a learned and enthusiastic account of the inner dynamic of English, from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, so that its amazing richness and uniqueness shine through, century by century.
Mr. Lerer (as his name suggests) is a teacher as well as a scholar; his recorded course on the history of English for the Teaching Company is justly popular. As a writer he’s erudite without ever becoming dull. He knows how to present the driest topics — the dread “Great Vowel Shift” is one of these — in jargon-free prose enlivened by striking examples. He provides useful maps of dialects and linguistic variations, a good glossary and bibliography; and yet, it’s his prose, characterized by a lucid exuberance and a passionate love of his subject, which carries the book all the way from Caedmon and Beowulf to Cab Calloway, Don DeLillo, and the tortured niceties of email English.
Old English was an inflected language with well-defined declensions, comparable to Latin or German, but it also possessed a capacity for word-building; the famous kennings — “swan-road” for the ocean, “walking weaver” for spider — illustrate this vividly. In the earliest surviving English poem, Caedmon’s “Hymn,” composed around 680 C.E., we read that God “first shaped for earth’s children / heaven as a roof.” Strange as that last phrase looks in Old English — “heben til hrofe” (“heaven to roof”) — we can just glimpse the beginnings of our robust English words with their emphatic stresses. As Mr. Lerer traces the alterations in this archaic tongue over half a millennium, we witness its transformation, under the pressure of Latin and Norman French, into something as familiar as it is still strange.
Through close reading of poems and chronicles, Mr. Lerer shows how the native genius of English became ever more flexible. He’s especially good at explaining the decisive impetus that such geniuses as Chaucer, Julian of Norwich, and, ultimately, Shakespeare gave to the language. But unlike other philologists, Mr. Lerer supplies the historical context. He discusses “The Domesday Book” not simply as a linguistic document but as the fiercely acquisitive effort by William the Conqueror to number every acre of English soil; it was the meticulous inventory of his plunder. English grew not only through interchanges with other tongues but out of the calamities of the time; war, disenfranchisement and even torture brought new and terrible words into the lexicon.
Mr. Lerer’s narrative suggests that there’s an inbuilt playfulness to English. The Elizabethans exploited this fully. For them, and especially for Shakespeare, any part of speech could serve as any other. Shakespeare speaks of “a seldom pleasure” or says, “They askance their eyes,” using adverbs as an adjective and as a verb. We do this still, turning names, and even numbers, into verbs (as in “to Google” or “to 86 an order”). And we invent compounds with all the dexterity of Anglo-Saxon word-weavers, as when we speak of “rubber-necking delays.” This grammatical suppleness, constrained only by word order rather than inflection, seems native to our tongue and helps account for its worldwide appeal.
No phenomenon of spoken English is too slight for Mr. Lerer’s inquisitive attention. He notes, for example, that Isaac Newton was fascinated by phonetics — he was part of the 16th-century “Orthoepist” movement, which sought to standardize English — and described sounds made deep in the throat as a “jarring of the throte as when wee force up flegme.” Or he cites William Labov’s finding that “the floorwalkers at Saks Fifth Avenue pronounced the r’s in ‘fourth floor’ more than those at Macy’s, and the least amount of r was heard at S. Klein’s” — an observation I mean to test the next time I go shopping. His discussion of Black English, with its indebtedness to Gullah — the Creole dialect spoken on the South Carolina islands — or its use of verbal aspect (“I be tired”), rather than conventional tense, is astute and sensitive.
A language only lives and grows in the mouths of its speakers, and yet English emerges from Mr. Lerer’s history as a complex personage in its own right, a creature of moods and quirks and rather rumbustious tendencies. Language, and especially English, possesses an inbuilt momentum of invention. We use it but it speaks through us too; by inventing it we invent ourselves as well.
A new book traces the origins of our language - from the Anglo-Saxons to Eminem. In the excerpt below, author Seth Lerer explains how Noah Webster helped shape a distinct strain of English for his native America
Writing in the preface to his American Dictionary of 1828, Noah Webster noted: “Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of our country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language ... No person in this country will be satisfied with the English definitions of the words congress, senate, and assembly, court, &c. for although these are words used in England, yet they are applied in this country to express ideas which they do not express in that country.”
There is, of course, an obvious political position behind such remarks, reaching back to Webster’s writings of the 1780s and 1790s. But there is, too, a profound debt to Samuel Johnson and his philosophical inspiration, John Locke.
Words, to recall Locke’s phrasing in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “stand for nothing but the Ideas in the mind,” and this notion stands behind Johnson’s own avowal, in one of his essays, that “Difference of thoughts will produce difference of language.” For Locke and Johnson, sensation remains the source of ideas; the mind, at birth, is a blank slate on which experiences script out our knowledge.
There is a homespun reality to Webster’s Lockean world: a world in which instruction in the arts of language takes place on the slates of schoolroom children, a world in which looking out a window reveals just how varied is the landscape of the nation and the nation’s minds. Johnson had taken such an attitude in the preface to his Dictionary, where he noted how human passions, senses and opinions constantly mutate the language that we use. Words come in, change their meanings and their sounds, and to attempt to fix a language is a futile gesture. “To enchain a syllable,” he declared, “and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride.”
Americans, in particular, Webster writes, “had not only a right to adopt new words, but were obliged to modify the language to suit the novelty of the circumstances, geographical and political in which they were placed ... It is quite impossible to stop the progress of language — it is like the course of the Mississippi, the motion of which, at times is scarcely perceptible; yet even then it possesses a momentum quite irresistible. Words and expressions will be forced into use in spite of all the exertions of all the writers of the world.”
Webster’s impact was immense. At one level, he sought to reform spelling and pronunciation to reflect a distinctive American economy of life. Thus, he pares down the -our-spellings of England to the -or-spellings of America (colour became color, for instance). He eliminates the final k in words such as music, logic, physic and the like. He respells British -re-endings into -er-endings to reflect pronunciation (center for centre), and similarly replaces the British c in defence, offence, with an s (defense, offense). Webster also recorded (and thus codified) the American habit of uniformly pronouncing the unaccented syllables of words. Americans still say “necessary,” “secretary,” and “literature,” while in Britain they say “necessry,” “secretry,” and “litrature.”
But at another level, Webster’s impact lay in the American imagination. For generations, American literary writers turned to Webster for their inspiration. Frederick Douglass turned to him when, as a slave boy, he surreptitiously learned to read and write. Seeking to improve his handwriting, he copied out the italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, “until I could make them all without looking on the book.” And in his master Tommy’s copybooks, “in the ample spaces between the lines I wrote other lines as nearly like his as possible.”
Is American literature written between Webster’s lines? For Douglass, the emergence into literacy comes after much trial: first, hearing his mistress read the Bible and learning to spell out a few words from the book; then, watching the carpenters in the Baltimore shipyard, marking the initials on the timbers for their placement in a ship. Douglass learns to copy, and soon, “With playmates for my teachers, fences and pavements for my copybooks and chalk for my pen and ink, I learned to write.”
The power of this passage lies not only in its heartfelt reminiscence of a slave who would become a free man. Knowledge, as Douglass learns, “unfits a child to be a slave,” and he takes his master’s dismissive comment as a goad to freedom. But the power of this passage lies, too, in its
profound understanding of Webster’s own philosophical groundwork. All the world is a slate; sensation and impression come into the mind much as the letters of the carpenters are etched into the logs.
“Mind your book.” This admonition lies at the heart of Webster’s speller, and for Douglass — or, for any of the countless other young Americans who used it — what he finds are moral lessons of American life. For Emily Dickinson, Webster was everywhere, as well. She spent days with Webster’s Dictionary (the 1844 edition), checking meanings,
finding collocations, teasing out the connotations of vocabulary. Much like the young Frederick Douglass, her own letters may be written in between the lines of Webster.
Though Dickinson never saw the Mississippi — whose course Webster had compared to the progress of language — she had seen something Webster could not have imagined: the railroad. By the 1840s, it was already known as the “iron horse,” a locution that the Oxford English Dictionary locates in America. Here is their quotation from 1846: “The iron horse... with the wings of the wind ... vomiting fire and smoke” (s.v., iron, adj., def. 4.c.; quotation from The Congressional Globe). Dickinson sees the train as such a horse, and in one of her poems we can see not just the onset of technology but what Webster would have called the progress of language: impossible to stop, with a momentum quite irresistible. I like to see it lap the Miles — And lick the Valleys up — And stop to feed itself at Tanks — And then—prodigious step
Around a Pile of Mountains — And supercilious peer In Shanties —by the sides of Roads — And then a Quarry pare
To fit its Ribs And crawl between Complaining all the while In horrid—hooting stanza — Then chase itself down Hill —
And neigh like Boanerges — Then—punctual as a Star Stop—docile and omnipotent At its own stable door.
Look up lap in Webster: “to take into the mouth with the tongue; to lick up; as a cat laps milk. Shaks.” (Johnson, too, quotes “cat laps milk” from Shakespeare). Lap and lick are already together here, though the benignity of feline feeding disappears as soon as we come to prodigious. Webster quotes Thomas Browne to illustrate his definition: “It is prodigious to have thunder in a clear sky” (again, so does Johnson).
There is the noise, now, of the thundering train — a noise that anticipates the final stanza’s Boanerges (from Mark 3:17, the name given to the apostles James and John and meaning “sons of thunder”). The image of that sky, of something greater than mere machinery, embeds itself in supercilious: “lofty with pride.”
Now, we are riding not along the iron rails but along lines of verse. That horrid, hooting stanza calls up the canon of British poetry. Horrid is, for Webster, a distinctively Miltonic word: “horrid sympathy,” he quotes, but also Dryden (“Horrid with fern and intricate with thorn”; again, Johnson’s quotation too). Hoot has its illustrative quotations from Dryden, Shakespeare and Swift. Punctual means, first and foremost, “consisting in a point, as in this punctual spot” — the last words of this clause are Mil-ton’s (and the same in Johnson).
The language of America is like this train, lapping up miles of meter, feeding on poetry and prose. But we can see the American lexicon lapping up Johnson, too. That lexicon draws on many sources, and finding echoes of Johnson in Webster is much like finding echoes of Webster in Dickinson — to see evidence of the voracity of reading. One might as well try to enchain a syllable or lash the wind as hold this horse of language.
Enchain, lash: these are Johnson’s words from the preface to his Dictionary, but they are, too, the words of slavery. One cannot enslave language, much as one cannot enslave the language-loving child. Douglass knew this. Recall the words of his master: If you teach the slave to read and write, “he’ll be running away with himself.” And so the locomotive runs away; so runs away the writer. Douglass and Dickinson, like Witherspoon and Webster, pare the quarry of English to fit their ribs, and if their language comes out, in the end, like horrid, hooting stanzas — well, that is what it’s like to speak with wings of wind.
PARIS — To the barricades! That’s the message of language purists aghast that the lyrics of France’s entry in a hugely popular European song contest are — mon Dieu! — in English.
Critics, including the French government, are adamant: Sebastien Tellier should not perform “Divine” at Eurovision — unless it is in French.
“A song represents the soul of a country,” said Marc Favre d’Echallens, who heads a group dedicated to defending French against the growing use of English.
“It appears logical that a song representing France be a French song sung in French,” he said, denouncing cultural “uniformity” and the “hegemony” of the English language in the world today.
It’s the latest battle in a war France has waged for decades to defend French against the encroachment — some call it the invasion — of the English language.
The televised May 24 Eurovision contest, with entries from Andorra to Russia, drew some 100 million viewers last year — when France placed 22 out of 24 finalists, with 19 points.
Serbia’s Marija Serifovic won with 268 points and a heart-wrenching rendition of the ballad “Molitva,” or “The Prayer” — sung in her native language.
France’s losing entry mixed English and French, with the lyrics “L’amour a la francaise let’s do it again, again, again, again.”
Wildly popular in Europe, Eurovision has lifted artists from obscurity to celebrity. ABBA won in 1974 with a song that spoke of another French defeat — “Waterloo.” And Celine Dion’s win in 1988, singing “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” (Don’t Leave Without Me), helped launch her career.
This year’s contest features performers from 43 countries. Eurovision bills itself as one of the longest-running television shows in the world, with the first contest in 1956. France has won 14 times.
France’s entry, “Divine,” — with only two lines in French — was chosen by France-3, the public television station.
France’s minister for cooperation and Francophonie, or French speakers, issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday reflecting his disapproval.
“When one has the honor of being selected to represent France, one sings in French,” Alain Joyandet said. He has urged Tellier and France-3 to consider changing the song.
Joyandet was scheduled to meet Thursday with an official of Tellier’s RecordMakers label, Stephane Elfassi.
Tellier was not immediately available to comment on the uproar. However, his producer, Marc Teissier du Cros of RecordMakers, said the singer “is quite amused.”
After writing the song in English, Tellier “tried to adapt it in French but it didn’t work out,” du Cros said.
“For me, this is yesterday’s debate,” he said. “Today an artist ... has the right to choose the language in which he wants to sing.”
Still, Eurovision statistics show English holds sway in the contest, in which viewers pick the winner by phone and text message. English or mostly English songs have won 22 times.
More than half of this year’s Eurovision contestants — 25 — will sing in English.
Lawmaker Francois-Michel Gonnot of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing conservative UMP party, set the nation’s indignation in motion, asserting that he has received mail from French-speakers as far away as Vietnam and Africa, urging him to take a stand.
“‘Be careful,’ they wrote. ‘If you, the French, don’t defend the French language, who will?’” Gonnot told Associated Press Television News. “France has the will to be a great power, and it relies on its history, a culture and a language that today is spoken by 175 million people across the world.”
But, he added, French is a “threatened language.”
Ironically, English, too, may be losing ground if the lyrics of Tellier’s “electro” tune are any indication. Their meaning may test the linguistic mettle of even some native English-speakers: “Oh oh oh / I’m alone in life to say / I love the Chivers anyway / ‘Cause Chivers look divine.” The meaning of Chivers is unclear.
In 2006, then-President Jacques Chirac stormed out of a European Union summit when a French industrialist spoke in English — and called it “the language of business.”
“We fight for our language. It is in our international interest,” Chirac said.
For years, English words have crept into the French language: le look, le weekend, le hotdog. But these days, everything from the soundtracks for television commercials to the lyrics of French pop songs are in English.
In France, some words have now been legislated into French, like “logiciel” for “software.”
Indeed, kings and emperors preceded staid lawmakers in deciding how the French should talk. In 1510, Louis XII ordered that legal investigations be written in French.
Favre d’Echallens said one possible riposte to the “Divine” song would be withholding public funding for France-3 television. He said the broadcaster, by picking an English song, was failing in its public service missions, which he said include an obligation to promote French.
“It is the French who pay (the taxes) ... Maybe the French want to hear a song in French,” Favre d’Echallens said.
Parisian Robert Tordjman, 73, said he just hopes Tellier wins for France.
“If it allows him to win the contest, then let him sing in English,” Tordjman told APTN. “We’d accept it.”