08:29:30 am on
Thursday 13 Jun 2024

Point of Entry
Sjef Frenken

Where do all the changes in a language come from?

Some languages are formalized and controlled by committees, with proper rules for change set out every ten years or so. The Belgian Flemish and the Dutch authorities are very effective in that regard, at least up to a point. Just like the Academie Francaise, they have a hard time stemming the flood of English words that is inundating their nations.

English, the new lingua franca has an exceptionally large vocabulary for a modern language, but its spelling is an affront to the logical mind. It is a free-for-all, without referees.

I remember telling Jack about George Bernard Shaw. How GBS one time had jotted down the letters G, H, O, T, and I on a piece of paper and asked an acquaintance to pronounce the word. Naturally the acquaintance said 'ghoti'. 'No,' said Shaw, 'it's 'fish' -- GH as in 'laugh', O as in 'women' and TI as in 'nation': Fish.

So what is shaping the language; where do the changes come from?

Last Thursday, as I was sitting down for lunch with Jack at Bayshore, he said: "When did a problem become an issue."

I said: "I don't follow you."

Jack said: "People used to say they had a problem. Nobody says that anymore; people now have issues, I guess it sounds more important to have issues. They still mean they have a problem, but they use the word issue. But the word 'issue' is not synonymous with the word 'problem'. I know there is some overlap -- some issues can be problematic, and some problems may involve issues -- but the one doesn't mean the other. At least they didn't use to."

I said: "Jack, we've been over this ground before. Language changes."

"Yeah," said Jack, "but it's moving in the wrong direction; instead of the language becoming more precise, it is becoming less and less so."

I said "Jack, you are concerned, and I am concerned, but I don't think there's much we can do about it. Maybe it's all because of some kind of linguistic black hole."

Jack said: "I don't think you understand what I'm getting at: what I want to know is who starts these things? It's not as if thousands of people all over the English-speaking world suddenly decide that the word 'problem' is passe and that we all have to use 'issue' from now on. Somebody must start it. The same with that stupid 'I'm like; he's like...' instead of 'I said; he said.' Where do those monstrosities come from?" Who is the first to dump that kind of inarticulate trash into the language? I want to know!"

I said: "That's a bit like that old saw about there being a woman somewhere in the world having a baby every five seconds: We've got to stop her!"

Jack gave my feeble illustration a dismissive grunt.

I continued: "First of all, Jack, by the time you and I notice it, these things have been around for quite some time. It'd be impossible to trace them back to the originating culprit. Besides, these things sneak in under people's radar; folks just pick them up, unconsciously, in conversation. It's like the flu: the carriers wouldn't know who had infected them. I suppose the only defense is to be on guard against that kind of thing, and not fall victim. It's up to all of us, including you and me, Jack, to do our bit to protect the language; to stand on guard for the Queen's English."

"Up to a point," said Jack. "I'm still pissed off that we're speaking English instead of French. After all, what was the point of the Norman Conquest otherwise?"

I said "Jack, bringing it a bit closer to home, there was after all that unseemly brawl on the Plains of Abraham."

Jack looked a bit downcast.

To console him and cheer him up a bit, I said "Who knows, if the Dutch had managed to hold onto New Amsterdam, which later became New York, we might all be speaking Dutch right now. It makes you think."

"Not if I can help it," said Jack. He got up to leave.

I figured I might as well too. No point talking to myself.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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