Inspired by The Secret life of words. How English became English. Henry Hitchings (2008)
‘Communications is essential to our lives, but how often do we stop to think about where the words we use have come from?’ Hitchings (2008)
Whilst ‘where words came from’ is the premise for ‘The Secret Life of Words’ it is much more: it is a history of the people who spoke English. It is a refreshing take on a chronology of events. We learn history through words for warrior, through the Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin word for the same thing ... and through the words the English language has so easily accommodated from across the globe. It is a fascinating journey, one made pertinent to someone studying on the cascading wave-edge of the digital ocean that is ‘e-learning’ with the frequent coining of new terms.
For a description of the way the English language functions (or mis-functions) I love this:
English is ‘Deficient in regularity.’
From James Harris (c1720) in Hitchings (2008:1)
It is exactly the kind of thing a teacher might write in red pen at the bottom of a school-boy’s essay.
This is another way of putting it. English, ‘this hybrid tongue’, as Hitchings calls it. Hitchings (2008:2)
A tongue that re-invents itself, twists and transmogrifies at every turn.
A couple of decades ago I recall there being suggestions that the English language would splinter into so many dialects, creoles and forms that a speaker of one would not understand the user of another. The opposite appears to be the case, that ‘core English’ has been stabilised by its myriad of versions. Users can choose to understand each other or not, to tolerate even celebrate their differences or to use difference to create a barrier: think of the class divide, the posh voice versus the plebeian, one regional accent set against another, or an accent from one former British Dominion compared to another.
‘Words bind us together, and can drive us apart.’ Hitchings (2008:3)
How is the Internet changing the English Language?
What impact has Instant Messaging, blogging and asynchronous communication had? Can we be confident that others take from our words the meanings we intend? As we are so inclined to use sarcasm, irony, flippancy and wit when we speak, how does this transcribe when turned into words? How can you know a person’s meaning or intentions without seeing their face or interpreting their body language? Must we be bland to compensate for this?
I love mistakes, such as this one from Hitchings:
Crayfish ... ‘its fishy quality is the result of a creative mishearing.’ Hitchings (2008:4)
Age ten or eleven I started to keep a book of my ‘creative mishearings’ which included words such as ‘ragabond,’ instead of ‘vagabond.’ I love the idea of the ‘creative mishearing,’ isn’t this the same as ‘butterfly’, shouldn’t it be ‘flutterby’? And recalling a BBC Radio 4 Broadcast on Creativity with Grayson Perry, ‘creativity is mistakes.’
Mistakes and misunderstandings put barbs on the wire strings of words we hook from point to point, between arguments and chapters. We are fortunate that the English language is so flawed; it affords scratches and debate, conflict and the taking of sides.
An American travelled 19,000 miles back and forth across the US with a buddy correcting spellings, grammar and punctuation on billboards, notices and road signs. His engaging story split the reviewers into diametrically opposed camps of ‘love him’ or ‘hate him.’ (Courtesy of the Today Programme, the day before yesterday c20th August 2010)
‘Our language creates communities and solidarities, as well as division and disagreements.’ Hitchings (2008:4)
My test for the longevity and acceptability of a new word coined to cover a term in e-learning will be twofold:
Can, what is invariably a noun, be turned with ease into a verb or adjective?
Might we have an Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin word for the same thing. We like to have many words for the same thing ... variations on a theme.
And a final thought
Do technical words lend themselves to such reverse engineering? Or, like a number, are they immutable?
If they are made of stone I will find myself a mason's chisel.