76. What is Language?

yol 4Your Own Language, 4: What is Language

The last thing I said in post 73 was that if you want to write, you have to create your own version of English. That seems insane on the face of it. Create your own version of English? Why not just use the real thing?

Because there is no such thing as the real thing. I pity the teachers who have to teach “proper” English because that beast does not exist in the wild, and attempts to create it in the laboratory have all failed.

Language, like history, is a product of the winners. You people in New England; why do you think you don’t eat grits, and say ain’t and y’all? It is entirely because Pickett’s charge failed at the Battle of Gettysburg.

No one does linguistic imperialism as well as the English. I didn’t say British. Great Britain consists of England and three other historic countries which were conquered and welded onto England against their will, and whose languages were crushed by the conquerors.

America gained its independence late in this process. English was already the dominant language and its dialects were dispersed throughout America to morph into the dialects we still have. (see post 12) Conquered languages like Gaelic and Scots survived in the backcountry of Britain to see a resurgence in the last fifty years, but died quickly in America.

After American independence, the languages of the two countries diverged until George Bernard Shaw was able to quip, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Part of the divergence was due to American adoption of Amerindian, African, and Spanish vocabulary, part was natural drift, and part of it was the rise of industrialism in both countries before rapid international communication was common. To put it another way, American cars have hoods and trunks instead of bonnets and boots because cars were invented after 1776 and before the internet.

The French have a government agency designed to regulate proper French. It doesn’t work. Ordinary Frenchmen disregard it, but the bureaucrats still try. Britain attempts to unify and codify it’s many dialects and languages through its public schools. At many times in Britain’s history, in-school use of dialects that deviated from governmentally supported norms was severely punished.

That wouldn’t work in America. If a teacher from London had had the misfortune of landing in the Oklahoma of my childhood, the local farmers would have taken him aside to say, “You’re from England, why the Hell can’t you speak English.” This line would have been delivered in an Okie accent that the Londoner probably would not have understood.

All of this leads to the question, “Who is in charge of our language?”, but that requires a post of its own, next Tuesday, after we attend a funeral on Monday.

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