Thursday, June 22, 2006

Your language bias may be plain prejudice

I have studied it often, but I never could discover the plot.
- Mark Twain, author and humorist, on the dictionary (1835-1910)

A dictionary can tell a lot about a people, its culture and especially its history.

For example, an English dictionary shows how the language is really a compendium of many other languages, with words from almost every other language known to the English of recent centuries.

English, thanks to the many new words of science that are added every single day, now owes more to Latin than to Anglo-Saxon if you go by languages of word origins.

Some of our odd grammar rules derive from the days that Norman French held the English monarchy and the "English" nobility all spoke French. Putting "an" instead of "a" before a word beginning with an "h" (example: an historic occasion) follows the rule of using "an" before a word that begins with a vowel.

But "historic" begins with a consonant! Ah, but the French do not pronounce h's, so to a French speaker the word would be pronounced "istoric." So the grammar rule about using "an" became the convention even though "historic" is always pronounced with the "h" sounding.

By the way, that rule is now obsolete, so you may write and say "a historic occasion." And it's perfectly acceptable to pronounce the "h" in "herb" for the same reason. About half of all English speakers say "herb" each way, with and without the "h" sounded. French is no longer the language of the English court (though it was until a century ago).

Anglo-Saxon was the language of the common people in the Renaissance period. Since the aristocracy spoke French, they viewed Anglo-Saxon words as coarse and vulgar. Almost every profane word in English derives from Anglo-Saxon. The French or Latin words for exactly the same body parts or activities are deemed to be perfectly acceptable.

It's language prejudice, much the way political correctness is today.

Though Mark Twain could not find a plot in the dictionary, it was there at one time. Only words that were acceptable to the English nobility and the English church were included in English dictionaries. That has changed and today dictionaries reflect words that are in use by people, not just words that meet some artificially created criteria. No matter what the word or its origin, if enough people use the word or expression, it will be in the Oxford English Dictionary.

What are correct and which are improper English words today? It depends largely on who you ask. Or on whom you ask. (See?) Language is a tool of communication. Just as there are many kinds of hammers and no building contractor insists that a carpenter must use a particular kind of hammer, there is no valid reason why some words and grammar structure should be used while others should not. (Forget nail guns, don't mess up my example.)

Unless you support language bigotry.

Bill Allin
'Turning it Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to take the prejudice out of communication.
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