Thursday, June 26, 2008

Language Change

I have noted before that Shakespeare is now accessible to the modern reader only with notes and instruction. As even Christian children are little exposed to the KJV these days, the word order, archaic vocabulary, and different meanings of familiar words in Elizabethan English has become too much of an obstacle. Shakespeare is a casualty of that change. Even he only held on as long as he did with some luck. His contemporaries Marlow and Jonson are even less well understood now. William's fame gives us enough familiarity with his vocabulary, plots, and characters to help us along - sometimes. Give Titus Andronicus a spin.

Tangentially, I consider the de-emphasis on the KJV a net gain.

Languages that are written change comparatively slowly, but they do change. The unfamiliarity with the Authorised Version only gave the final push - Early Modern English going out of reach would have happened in the next generation anyway. On shorter timescales, we tend not to perceive differences as changes in the language itself. We see the writing of the 1920's or the 1880's as having a certain style, as if its difference from our own phrasing was some temporary phenomenon now righted by a return to simple English. Oh, they wrote in a very formal (florid, rigid) style then.

Here is part of an introduction from a travel guide of about 150 years ago:
In all parts of Europe the traveler is supplied with Guidebooks, detailing, for his special information and satisfaction, the leading features of all objects of interest on his route. There is not an antiquated castle, a battle-field, a mountain, or a river, but has its peculiar points revealed for the entertainment of the stranger, as he rambles along from place to place. No doubt this materially adds to the interest and subsequent value of travel; and probably constitutes one of the paramount attractions of a tour in Europe, since all its incidents are thus permanently impressed on the mind.
Every word is understandable, so we recognize it as English, but of a different style. Yet it is not style change that we are perceiving, but changes in the language itself. We would now think that is supplied means that the books are somehow automatically provided, rather than available, and we would not capitalize guidebooks. We would use fewer commas. We would choose some word other than special, and leading, and we would not add and satisfaction. Note that I haven't gotten off the first sentence yet. Further on, we see a hyphenated battle-field, and a use of peculiar that we would find, well, peculiar. We would find it somewhat tiring to read such prose at length. Even I find it tiring, and I regularly use older constructions in my own writing. I am 55, and was trained by pedantic female relatives. (One of my great aunts, when she was in a nursing home, and demented enough to only occasionally recognize her only daughter, still corrected the grammar of the young nurse's aides attending her.) My sentence just above, We would find it somewhat tiring to read such prose at length, would not be written in just that way by any person under 20 in the entire country. Few even of my own age would.


Erin said...

I apparently have been secretly trained by your great-aunt, as I found the sentence perfectly natural.

I always cite Titus Andronicus to all my cynical students who are convinced classic literature pales in comparison to the action and horror movies of today. Keep a running tally of dismemberment and death. Person to injury ratios have to at least stay on par with The 300, if not surpass it.

Anonymous said...

Ewwww. Not Titus Andronicus. One nice poem about a snake relaxing on a rock, and the rest is bloody mayhem.
I grew up reading lengthy prose, so I had no trouble, until you showed me what I didn't know) reading your examples. But I do, when I read such prose today, edit it mentally to half for today's audience.
I remember picking up some childhood favorites for my kids to read, and then realizing that they would not be able to with any pleasure whatsoever. Remember Waterbabies?