Thursday, August 31, 2006

There will be some profanity

English is a fascinating and complex language which, to those who speak it as their first language, seems fairly straightforward and uncomplicated. To those who have to learn it as a second language, however, it’s a bewildering morass of double meanings, hidden allusions and words and expressions from other languages. The rules of spelling are hopelessly complex and contradictory, and the grammatical structure of English seems to have been created by someone who didn’t like people much.
Depending on what source you refer to, there are about a million words in the English language. Maybe about half of those are words specific to the various professions in science, the law, and the arcane world of technology. That still leaves us some 500,000 words from which to build our vocabulary. Again, depending on sources, it’s estimated that an average five-year-old might know some 5000 words, and someone with a basic university education might have access to a mental lexicon of about 20,000. You can more than double that figure if you are a voracious reader, and triple it if you teach at the university level. Let’s not talk about what watching television will do to someone’s ability to express themselves clearly – it’s too depressing.
What matters in all this, of course, is how you string together whatever words you know in order to make yourself understood. It’s usually at this point that that people will sigh in exasperation and start to mutter darkly about the younger generation’s frightful abuse of the Queen’s English. References to the fall of Rome usually follow. But what has enabled English to not only survive but to thrive since a fairly recognizable version of the language was finally cobbled together out of Celtic, Latin, Scandinavian dialects, French and other languages into what scholars think of as the Later Middle English period around 1500, has been its ability to adopt and adapt.
Unlike the French who have The foundation of the Académie française (French Academy) which was created in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu as an official organization whose goal was the purification and preservation of the French language, the English have allowed their language to evolve willy-nilly (which, incidentally, is an expression that dates to about 1608, and is a contraction of will he, nill he, or will ye, nill ye, meaning with or without the will of the person concerned). The Académie française still exists, by the way, and looks after the policing of the language and the adaptation of foreign words and expressions. There’ll be no donne moi un hot dog in Paris, but in London it is de rigeur to include French words and expressions in everyday language, as indeed it’s all right to toss in a little ad hoc Latin just to impress.
But what about profanities? And all those other awful words and expressions use by rap musicians and rock and roll singers? And what about the incursions of spellings employed by kids who use their cell phones to text one another? Surely none of that should be allowed into the Queen’s English, otherwise we’ll all be writing “OmGd C u l8r,” and surely that won’t do.
Well, like it or not, English is a very democratic language, and as in any working democracy (from Greek demokratia, from demos meaning common people, and kratos" meaning rule or strength), the majority rules. In other words, once enough people use a word that it can be considered as being in the common parlance, it enters the standard lexicon.
For many people who care about these things, one of the most standard of standard lexicons is the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In 1992 Canada got its own Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and the lexicographers who work on these tomes are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes “proper English”, remembering always that they draw their information from the words in common use.
So, for better or worse, the OED includes “hassle” and “dweeb” (“A person who is boringly conventional, puny or studious,” and yes, I’ll take that as a compliment), and any number of other words many people who worry about the state of the language would consider too colloquial to be appropriate.
The OED also includes – brace yourselves - the word “fuck” which to anyone over the age of, say, forty, is a profanity of such magnitude that it can’t be included in even informal conversations, but which to younger people is, as the OED describes it, merely “… a meaningless intensifier.” And by the way, the OED, which includes etymologies in its definitions, says nothing about “Filed Under Carnal Knowledge” or anything like that. It refers to the word as coarse slang of unknown origin. So there.
The fact remains that fuck, which I, being much older than forty, can barely make myself type out, has become so pervasive in the parlance of young people as to all but completely remove its original, coarse, meaning. The ubiquity of the word is even earning it a dialect descriptor of its own as “fuck patois” (from Fr. Patois meaning "native or local speech," and may have referred to a clumsy manner of speaking). The word still has some power to shock, but once that power is lost, it may fall out of fashion as have so many slang words, only to make way for something even more egregious – perhaps even something that will shock the linguistic sensibilities of today’s younger generation.
What those who care about the state of the English language are faced with is a choice between trying to rein it in, which would be like trying to rein in the Internet, and letting the language evolve as it will, even if that means losing much loved words and expressions to the vagaries of fashion. But after all, nobody speaks like Shakespeare anymore. Does that make English any less vibrant or useful? Methinks not.

Next month: to the rescue of the language: insisting on clarity in communication, if not politeness.
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