Monday, 3 January 2011

Brief histories #1: Words

Hi there,

Barry Chindouche here, with the first of my brief history guides. Today, I am going to give you a brief history of words.

Words are vital. So far in this post, I have used 36 words. Without those words, I would have really struggled to get this post started.

A fresh start
The actual word "English" is derived called from the Greek (engals, "angels") + (ish, "The language of"). Invented in County Durham in the 12th century, English went on to become widely adopted throughout England by 1274.

Historical records from that initial period are sketchy, but it has been suggested that the first English word was "cowardly" - a word invented to describe the attributes of the then French military leader Hercule Cowárd.

Bound for glory
The early English speakers relied on their memory to hold the language together. This meant that English would change almost daily, which would lead to terrible confusion. Communities would regularly be split between an overnight change in pronunciation. This is where the modern day dialects stem from.

The language would have degenerated into a verbal soup had it not been for one man, Samuel Johnson. He took pains to write all the words down that he knew, imposing his ideal of pronunciation1.

In many ways, you owe him your life. Imagine going in for open heart surgery. As you lie there in a literal life-or-death moment, the doctor asks for a scalpel, and the nurse hands him a hammer. Shiver inducing.

Today and tomorrow
English is enjoying something of a resurgence in the modern era - 1 in every 3 people speak it. That's the same as 1/3 or 33%. However, the future may not be so rosé.

There are now an estimated 400 languages in the world. With immigration2 at an all time high, I fear that English will be drowned in a sea of French, German and Taiwanese. We need to take steps to avoid this.

The average person speaks for 2 hours 34 minutes a day. If we all take steps to double this (even just repeating each sentence that you say), I am confident we can keep this language great and all conquering.

You owe it to Mr Johnson.

B. Chindouche.

1Although he did leave in some examples of what he called "hilarious ambiguity". Words such as 'scone'.
2See future post: "Immigration - My great shun"

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