Sunday, October 11, 2009


How English became English...

How many words are there in the English language? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of Modern English, there are approximately 400,000. But, it has been argued that, even in the most conservative estimations, there are closer to double that amount in our current lexicon. It would be impossible to count, specifically, how many words there are in the English language; it’s a moving target (compare it to totting up the exact number of Russell Brand’s one-night stands – constantly growing and poses various unanswerable questions: do threesomes count as one, or two? What about casual fellatio in public lavvys?). It would all depend on what is considered a word. Do you count all the regional variations of English? What about slang? Or dialect? Or proper nouns such as place names? And what about abbreviations? The biggest dictionary of them has more than 400,000 entries — do they count as words?

There’s no denying that this wide range of vocabulary allows us to communicate more expressively and eloquently, but perhaps the reason the English language has accumulated so many words is that, over its 1500 year existence, it has been rather promiscuous and ‘borrowed’ from over 350 other languages. It was originally derived from Anglo-Saxon but has since proven accommodating to words from Latin, Greek, Spanish, American, German and Swedish origin. Over half of our language comes from French, or French cognate, and a percentage from Dutch. ‘Poppycock’ (not an expletive we hear often enough these days), for instance, feels inherently and traditionally English; a quaint and innocent exclamation last heard some time during World War II. But it originated from the Dutch word ‘poppekak’, literally translating as ‘doll’s shit’. In fact, if you dig deep enough into the etymology of any old, seemingly innocent insult or phrase, you’ll probably find that it is derived from something much more sinister.

At some point during your life you are likely to have used, or been the recipient of, the pejorative slang ‘berk’. Again, considered relatively light-hearted and affectionate as far as insults go: ‘Oh, what a berk! You utter prat, you silly twit, you!’ But it is a little known fact that the term is a vulgar cockney rhyming slang dating back as early as the 1930s. If I were to tell you that it is an abbreviation of ‘Berkeley Hunt’, it shouldn’t be too difficult to decipher the true, original meaning of the word.

These ‘loanwords’ and cockney rhyming slangs make English a hugely complicated and difficult language to learn: full of flaws and contradictions. Semantic enigmas that continue to perplex and baffle include why is ‘phonetic’ spelt with a ‘ph’? The bandage was wound around the wound. The farm was used to produce produce. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present. The four little letters ‘ough’, can be pronounced in 14 completely different ways, making noises such as ‘uff’ and ‘ooh’, ‘ock’ and ‘ow’ and ‘awe’ and ‘off’. You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple.

However nonsensical it may seem, it is still the first language for 375 million people, and the second for more than 500 million. Spoken across the globe by Americans, Australians, Canadians and South Africans, English is considered to be the ‘lingua franca’ or ‘world language’ of the modern age. So it would seem that it is not only the most widespread language geographically, but in terms of content and vocabulary, too. And it is forever expanding: the OED adds more than 1000 new words ever year, most recently including ‘Podcast’ and ‘thingamabob’. And it will continue to evolve; the OED removes old, unused, unwanted words. These dusty, archaic words have to make way for shiny new ones, like ‘frappuccino’ and ‘bovvered’.

Henry Hitchings, author of The Secret Lives of Words says: ‘The history of our vocabulary is the history of our place in the world.’ If this is true, then now, in 2008, surely we are at our most culturally rich and diverse as a country. No-one summarises this more vividly, expressively and passionately than the author, comedian, actor and genius that is Stephen Fry: ‘In London, our dear, beloved metropolis, you will see Medieval, Tudor, Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, art deco, modernist buildings all jostled together; it’s a very higgledy-piggledy city.’

‘The English language is like London; a mongrel mouthful, whether we know it or not, of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, American South Central, ghetto rap, Australian convict talk, legal, naval and military. Every phrase we utter is an equivalent of London: it is both vulgar and procession; both grand and squalid.’

Whether the future of the language holds anything as significant as Shakespeare, or as original as Cockney rhyming slang is yet to be seen, but one thing is for certain: English is, and shall continue to be, as multicultural as the civilisation it embodies.

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