Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Kate Burridge in Daylesford

Language change is interesting, so I considered myself lucky to be in Daylesford recently for the Words in Winter festival and able to attend a talk on this topic by Professor Kate Burridge, linguist and radio commentator.

She started by showing us the rate of change is not constant.

For centuries the norm was rapid change in spoken English. For instance, between the times of Chaucer (fourteenth century) and of Jonathan Swift (early eighteenth century) there was such a massive change that Swift's readers would have had difficulty reading Chaucer.

She read the first lines of the Prologue from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales - in the accent of the time, I might add!
Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;
When Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye
That sleepen al the night with open ye -
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages -
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
In contrast, when she read the opening to Swift's Gulliver's Travels, we had no trouble understanding the text.
My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies; but the charge of maintaining me, although I had a very scanty allowance, being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, and eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years.
Out of interest, after typing this quote, I spell-checked it, and Word thinks it is acceptable modern grammar.

The rise of written English as the pre-eminent form is the reason behind this slowing of the rate of change. When most business and study and social interaction occurred through spoken English, people didn't mind language changing, as long as they could understand each other. But we, with almost universal literacy, are strongly influenced by the way a word is written, visualising it as we say it, and this makes us resist change.

It was a great talk and has given me lots to think about.


Papillon Bleu said...

Oh it is so good to hear from you!!! I hope ypou haven't checked all my spelling mistakes in my last posts.He!he!
I thought so much about you when I was in Australia! Next time, I will try to visit some of my blog friends!
I saw your lovely comment on the childrensalon's blog and have never taken the time to thank you ( bad me..). I am no longer working for them by the way. Long story...

How is your dog?


parlance said...

You seem to have had a wonderful holiday. I enjoyed what you wrote for the childrensalon site - they were lucky to have you.

My dog has had an operation and we are struggling through the early days of recovery. I'm very grateful for the existence of the internet, because it enables me to see that others have made it through this rather stressful recovery period!

Papillon Bleu said...

Blogging is a great support network too.
Hope the sweet thing is better now.

parlance said...

Papillon Bleu, I've seen many examples of people receiving support through the internet. It's lovely to see.

Papillon Bleu said...

Anybody home? I hope you are ok.

parlance said...

Papillon Bleu, thanks for the visit! Yes, I'm fine, but I've just not felt like blogging about language over the last few weeks. Very lazy of me! You've inspired me to start again. Soon...

Year of Finishing Off said...

Do you think that 'youse' will eventually take the place of some forms of 'you'? I've heard Kate Burridge quoted about 'arks'. The proposition was that 'arks' was the correct form of what we now say as 'ask', but it changed because the former was too hard to pronounce.

parlance said...

Hi, Year Of
Yes, I think it might. Don't you think we need something that means plural 'you'?

We used to have 'thou' for singular and I think the old 'you' was formal and also could be plural. Not sure about that. Do you know?

I've heard that thing about aks being the original form. There are quite a few of those cases. I'm just trying to think of one, but none comes to mind.

There's also 'thrid' and 'third', but I think that migration of letters happened by some other process. I must try to find out. Now you've got me thinking...