Sunday, February 26, 2006

The 'purity' of English

It is funny to see how many people still view languages in moral terms – not just in 'right' or 'wrong' but even in terms of ‘purity’. This usually reflects of form of nostalgia for a golden age [that never existed] when people spoke and wrote well. Many lament for instance over the Americanization of English.
It is quite ironic when in fact many of those Americanisms that some British ‘purists’ decry are actually originally British expressions. They have been preserved in the colonies while lost in the motherland. (see here and here)
Here are some good examples of words lost by the British but still quite common in the U.S.:

  • fall (US) as a synonym for autumn (GB)
  • trash(US) for rubbish (GB)
  • frame-up(US) which was reintroduced to Britain through Hollywood gangster movies
  • loan(US) as a verb instead of lend
  • quit (US) as in "to cease an activity" (as opposed to "to leave a location" as still used in most other Anglophone countries)
  • gotten (US) as a past participle of get.
  • creek (US) for stream (GB)
  • or again the word diaper (US) which apparently goes back at least to Shakespeare, and usage was maintained in the U.S. and Canada, but was replaced in the British Isles with 'nappy'.

A similar phomenon also exists in grammar. For instance the subjunctive mood ( "far be it from me", America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good... ) is more common in North American English than in British English (British English has a strong tendency to replace subjunctives with auxiliary verb constructions).

This is obviously not to say that American English has not changed, evolved and taken a life of its own. If nothing else, it has been greatly influenced by the languages spoken by the immigrants. It just means that t
he idea of ‘purity’ of a language is as ridiculous as the idea of purity in a culture. It is all mixed with something else. Besides, to see exclusively things in binary terms - as we have seen in the last few years in politics - is awfully conservative and can have real damaging consequences, isn't it? Well, we could 'almost' say it is quite... "wrong" ... but we won't!
In this French book (called Americana) about the history of American music for instance, you find out that Irish traditional music was lost in Ireland and was eventually reintroduced through the Irish-American community which had preserved it.
Another example might be the ‘Italian pizza’. Which is the ‘real’ thing? Does it really matter
as long as diversity continues to exist?
The only ‘real’ thing is that thing you like! Here we go again with 'freedom'!

NOTE: the same thing can be said between French and English. After all, between a third to half of the English words come more or less directly from the French language. In French the English word 'flirt' which is considered an Anglicism actually comes from the old French expression 'conter fleurette'
which means "to (try to) seduce" by the dropping of flower leaves.


At 17:37, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One could write the same about any languages largely spoken through the world. The day-to-day languages are changing as people do even in France despite “l’Académie Française” (the French Academy) founded in 1634 to define what is to be considered as correct usage.
However I was surprised and couldn’t stop smiling hearing on ” TV Breizh” French people from Brittany speaking their regional language (which is an old one) using French new words which don’t exist in their language yet.
So how to define a “pure” language ? ...

At 20:49, Blogger Joker & Thief said...

I don't believe there is such a thing as a "pure language". There is what is considered 'correct usage' indeed but that obviously keep changing too.
There are things accepted by most as correct' but I think it is dangerous to put it in moral terms - and the notion of 'purity' seems too moral to me!
So I think "how to define a “pure” language ?" is irrelevant.

At 08:17, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If am not mistaken you compare “pure” to something religious. Can’t you consider it as something else really perfect, I mean for example crystal or a beautiful diamond. In this case there no reason no to aim to the "pure" language.

At 18:29, Blogger Joker & Thief said...

But even in this case, what does it mean for a language to be "perfect"? The difference between a crystal / a beautiful diamond and a language is that the latter is a living thing. It keeps changing and it is certainly not perfect (whatever that means, nobody speaks it "perfectly). On the contray, it is the expression of human imperfection.
Diamonds ae also said to be eternal - languages are not.
No language is "homogeneous or uniform", or "free of foreign elements" (see definition of 'pure'on So I still claim that the idea of a "pure language" is a myth and even that using the word 'pure' for a language or a culture is quite political.

At 20:47, Anonymous Anonymous said...

tell me 007,isn't it strange to associate "pure" and "political" is it?
another definition in the Hachettes : par extension : qui ne comporte pas d'imperfections, de fioritures : style, language pur

At 18:05, Blogger Joker & Thief said...

Yes, well, Hachette is obviously full of crap. ;-)
Where is there such 'purity'in any language? Who speaks or writes 'pure' French or 'pure' English? Give me a concrete illustration and I may buy it!
In fact there is no such thing - it is totally abstract. No wonder why the (French) Hachette dictionary gives that sort of definition. The French have a very idealistic view of their language and they - of all people - make it political.
I still think there is always a political and social dimension to how
one speaks and sees one's language.

At 20:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Raymond Barre and Jean-Marie Le Pen both speak a very good French indeed. Personally, although I don't know any American natives I think they use their own language as an efficient tool ; some French people instead, especially the elite who grew up in the spirit of “grandeur de la France" (France’s greatness) like to listen to themselves trying to speak a “pure” language and sometimes I admit it can be quite funny or boring...


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