Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The English Language

I recently finished “the mother tongue” by Bill Bryson. I am both delighted and disappointed by the book. The book is on the history of the English language: how English developed into a language, the historical crosscurrents that contributed to the development of English, the founding fathers of the language, the languages that English has absorbed words and phrases from. The list is quite long.

The book informs you not just about the English language but also the history of the country that gave birth to it, England. It takes you through different historical phases of England charting the growth, which occurred through many ups and downs, of the English language. Through the ebbs and flows of British history, the English language often lost its supremacy as the primary language of England to other languages brought by conquerors.

After the Normans, who came from France, conquered England driving out the Celts, the English society got divided into two halves – the commoners (the English-speaking populace) and the aristocracy (the Normans who spoke French). English remained the language of the common man, and French came to be spoken by the aristocracy, who didn’t try to embrace English until the fourteenth century. This bipolar- linguistic pattern of the society determined the coinage of words; for example, while cow has an Anglican origin (spoken by commoners), its meat – beef – is of French provenance (spoken by aristocracy). English later absorbed words coming from both the layers into its lexicon.

If the word ‘Anglican' surprised you, probably this bit of history will help. Angelics had come from a part of Germany and occupied England driving out the Celts. The Anglics contributed numerous words to English. The Anglic language sounds very much like English to this day. English is a Germanic language.

The book is replete with such trivia and serves them in a very arresting manner. The writing is engaging and informs the reader of the quirks and nuances of English – there are many – in a very absorbing way. Maybe English honours students already know most of the things, but they would have read them in a solemn format. Here Bryson narrates the history of English in a way William Dalrymple tells the past of India.

But the book is also very limited. It doesn’t mention the role played by the commonwealth nations – India, for example – in the growth of English as a global language. In the chapter entitled ‘Future of English,’ the book has largely dealt with US concerns about English. The book is completely silent on the role that British colonization played in the spread of the English language.

Bryson brings to light many interesting trinkets from the English speaking world – mainly the US and UK (the small English-speaking world for him).

Did you know, for example, that there is a community in America that does not speak English; its language is Pennsylvania Dutch? But that is the least strangeness of the community. The community is as insulated from rest of America as it is from the world of technology; so much that it lives without even the most elementary technological amenity like electricity. Their clothes and way of living are completely medieval. Which form of OK is right – ‘ok’ or ‘okay’; there is an elaborate history behind it? The book has much more than this, but I don’t remember all of them.

After reading the book, I wrote a mail to Bill Bryson calling his book ‘good but parochial’. I got an ‘out of office’ reply. The mail said if you don’t hear from me at all, please accept my apologies.

If you find any factual error, please mention it in your comments.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

Hi Indrasish,

You write well :-) .. If you want more traffic to your blog, you can do this by visiting blogs on this site and try to leave at least short interesting messages there. That way it will link back to your blog easily. Write more varied and interesting pieces too and regularly. You can also try joining social networking sites, like Facebook, and make more friends there. It will naturally follow that they will come to your blog to see your writing.

Good luck! Blessings to you and your family.

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