Thursday, January 18, 2007

English 4 U

As a person who started their education many decades ago, I tend to get cranky and pedantic at errors in written English. I have a particular antipathy to the modern curse of errors undetected by spelling checkers. A recent example was a writer attempting to "illicit" information, while "loose" as in "loose the plot" is becoming so common that in might soon make the Oxford English Dictionary as an alternative usage. All this only shows firstly, that English has developed in an illogical, unphonetic and chaotic manner and secondly, that at some point somebody tried to stop this happening, and my education was profoundly influenced by this attempted ban.
In the age of manuscript, which we look at in
Medieval Writing, there were no controls over the language. English was a Germanic dialect, infiltrated with bits of Scandinavian, French and Latin, varying greatly around its native land and constantly evolving. Spelling had no consistency at all. It was printing that really caused this to be seen as a problem. The printer Caxton bewailed the difficulty of printing the major works of cultural heritage in his own language, when the language of some older versions of these works was incomprehensible to him. The inhabitants of England could not even agree on the simple word for an egg. Today, reading even 15th century English throws up some mysteries. I am not entirely sure what the word "koryosloker", as found in an example used in one of my paleography exercises, means, and I'm not entirely sure that the scribe did either.
Dictionaries and grammar books of our own language, as opposed to the Latin of the medieval era, became prescriptive rather than descriptive in the age of printing. There are some who think they still should be, and decry the modern procedure of using academic dictionaries to document changes to the language rather than dictate correctnesses of the 18th century. Interestingly, the genie has been let out of the bottle by the democratisation of word production through changing technology. Just as the scribe with his quill had no sub-editor cracking him across the knuckles (unless he was transcribing the Bible in Latin!) so the modern communicator with PC and mobile phone is unconstrained. Perhaps the whole concept of correct English will eventually be seen as a brief anomaly in the history of the language.
: -) 2 U, rite gd!


Sarah E. said...

I love this opinion...I thought I was the only one who got annoyed at [single-syllable, short-vowel fricatives deleted] people's lack of spelling awareness (what's being taught in today's schools??) <-- SCARY thought!!

Anonymous said...

The more I read your blog and website, the more I long for freedom from the industrially reproduced authority of the printing press. Of course, that also means abandoning the dream of celebrity that only multitudinous industrially reproduced cultural artifacts can promise, but bringing our own thoughts and sharing them on an individual basis seem to me more of what we should be doing as humans. And at any rate it's at least as worthy a thing to be writing to one person as it is writing to a demographic or market segment.

Without an enduring authority to determine for us the meaning of the word "koryosloker," we may never know, but it's a bountiful universe and we may yet fish that word from the sea of manuscripts still swimming around. And even if not, there are so many words swimming in the depths he's in good company, I'm sure.

But are these words fish or fowl? My friend Joe Balaz wrote a poem(?) in pidgin English (I believe the authorities call it Hawaiian Creole English) called, "The History of Pigeon." A great play on words (with medeival references!) you can see here: .

You point out in your post "Web Sites and Medieval Manuscripts," ( how much web sites resemble medieval books, and come to think of it (thank you), how true that is! Wikis and blogs especially. You know, there is even one blog mostly composed of handwritten entries. Originally started as a blog about red wines, Garnet Grapes takes whatever sidetrack it's creator wishes by posting image files of his handwritten musings. You can see it here: . He seems a bit discouraged that the contents of his blog will be overlooked by Google's "bots" but that may actually be some kind of advantage. And at any rate, it didn't stop me from finding it.

And here's an interesting technological development: the online participatory dictionary. Whatever your opinion of rap, it's an incredible phenomenon from a linguistic perspective -- Medieval in the best sense. It glories in a one-city-block regionalism and the creation of new words. No prescriptive dictionary could contain it, yet via industrial reproduction, radio, and computer download, its localisms have global distribution. The allows anyone to post words and definitions. AND it further allows people to give each definition a thumbs up or down.

The definition of "Medieval" ( is a bit discouraging in the context of this discussion, but I didn't have the heart to give the first definition a thumbs down because indeed, the common meaning of "medieval" is as it says, "Completely cold-blooded and enraged, inflicting serious pain and death."

Hope that changes! Anyway, sorry for going on. Just wanted to drop some props on you and your site, girlfriend. No need to get all koryosloker and have to get medieval on me.

Much love and aloha,


Anonymous said...

Well written article.