Identifying words

I recently finished Barack Obama’s first autobiography, Dreams from my Father. (Great book – read my review here.) Right at the very end, a paragraph really caught my attention, because it was about language and identity, the evolution of speech even within a generation. The paragraph relays a conversation Obama was having with a history teacher whom he’d sought out to recommend books on his Luo heritage. He has previously relayed to us the local legend of the “night runners” and mentions them in passing to the teacher.

“My daughter, she has no use for night runners. You know, her first language is not Luo. Not even Swahili. It is English. When I listen to her talk with her friends it sound like gibberish to me. They take bits and pieces of everything – English, Swahili, German, Luo. Sometimes, I get fed up with this. Learn to speak one language properly, I tell them.” Rukia laughed to herself. “But I am beginning to resign myself – there’s nothing really to do. They live in a mixed-up world. It’s just as well, I suppose. In the end, I’m less interested in a daughter who’s authentically African than one who is authentically herself. “

In light of the recent submissions some of you lovely people have written for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, this seemed to contain a relevant message.

My feelings on language evolution are complex. Caught between a strident pedant (I’m a trained editor for heaven’s sake – good grammar was my livelihood!) and an amateur linguist (linguistics was my minor at university), I recognise that there are very few undiluted languages left in the world. Of course, pockets of purity remain, hidden away in tribal isolation, but for the most part we share words across borders, continents and oceans almost without noticing it. For example, already today I have used the word “spiel” in two different contexts. I’m pretty sure “spiel” has Germanic roots – as is true of many an English word – it’s cetainly not “pure” English, so to speak.

(The fact that there’s really no such thing as a “pure” English word is another matter entirely – and if this is a subject that interests you even a little bit I HIGHLY recommend Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English. Which reminds me, I must ask my step-dad to give that back to me – its due a re-read…)

As Vikki commented in her guest post on Scottish-English, there are some words that just relay their specific meaning so much better than any translation. This is where language evolution originates – in the understanding that, while a word can have a generic meaning across languages, its specific meaning is non-transferrable. So, an island nation like England, which should arguably be one of the purer of language centres due to it’s relative isolation, instead is influenced by every one of its conquerors and every nation it in turn conquers. There is now very little core English left because the English nation welcomes the breadth of vocabularly that matches our breadth of experience in the wider world. In other words, when our oppressive empiricist forefathers were off colonising the rest of the world against its will, they were at least smart enough to realise that where a word didn’t exist to express a meaning specific to another country or culture, they may as well adopt it. Our language is rich because we plundered both land and language.

Of course, there are other factors that effect the evolution of a language. Every generation adopts its own take on communication in order to imprint their own identity upon their speech. Words develop new meanings because they are dropped into a new context (witness wicked, bad, lush, gay, righteous, sweet, awesome...). And then there are the new words that evolve, not just out of progress (twitterati, vlog, blogosphere, etc) but out of the use of progressive technology – where in the past acronyms would be formed to shorten written notes or typesetting, (RSVP anyone? Not even REMOTELY English!) modern-day typing in conjunction with real-time technology has resulted in words being merged to create new short cuts.

While these blended words have been popular a while (Oxbridge, chortle, brunch, guestimate?), their application in real-time online chat has meant that the words used no longer need to be recognised blends, and can arise at any time out of any two words you fancy combining. What’s more, these words and phrases no longer need to actually abbreviate from the orginal – take for example the popular use of interwebs, a combination of internet and world wide web which, being one character longer than internet, really does bring us back around to the identity issue: it’s use is symbollic of belonging rather than a practical implication of blending for abbreviation’s sake.

And this is where English’s hugely diverse vocabulary really demonstrates a sense of belonging. One of the main points the Dictionary Blog’s international English project aims to make is that wherever English is taught or spoken it differs. And because English is such an embracing language, those differentiations enable learners to claim their own particular English for themselves. Speaking English is not about patriotism or nationalism, it’s not to do with being English but about speaking and celebrating your own version of a broadly international language. And this applies on every level – from a nations’ recognised taught English, via a class’s own learning of the speech, to a clique’s blended words and “in-joke” phrases. Its roots may lie in oppresive, empiricist philosophy but English’s modern application is about independent inclusivity.


2 thoughts on “Identifying words

    • I found him tough going, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because in between reading I wasn’t excited to pick the book up again. But when I was reading it I really enjoyed it. If that makes sense…

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