Josna Rege

236. Living Language: Changing, Impure

In 1980s, 2010s, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on December 15, 2013 at 1:21 pm
Carstairs tries out a new-fangled gadget with (the American) Lady Mary (photo: Michelle Dockery)

Carstairs tries out a new-fangled gadget with (the American) Lady Mary (photo: Michelle Dockery)

There was a time, many, many years ago now, when I knew every single word in Nikhil’s vocabulary. When reading aloud to him, I knew even before I uttered a given word that he wouldn’t have encountered it before, and would invariably ask me what it meant. As I defined it for him I could see him making a little mental note for future reference; and before the day was out he would almost invariably use that word in a sentence, reinforcing it, making it part of his repertoire.

On my last visit to India, one of my cousins remarked admiringly that my father, who has lived out of India for most of his adult life, spoke “chaste” Marathi. I didn’t ask him what he meant exactly, but I guessed that he meant a Marathi uncontaminated by foreign words and without each and every sentence interspersed with healthy sprinklings of Hindi and English. I passed on the compliment to Dad, who was pleased, since he misses speaking his mother tongue and sometimes wonders whether he is forgetting it.

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Vera, my dear landlady in New Hampshire for many years, was Swedish, but had lived in the United States ever since her marriage, some 60 years. When a young Swedish woman who had just met her remarked on her “Fifties Swedish,” it hadn’t occurred to me that language can be dated so precisely, but of course it can. When I watched the movie Pirate Radio (in the UK, The Boat That Rocked), much as I enjoyed the music, I was driven wild with irritation by the anachronisms and American English in the dialogue that I was quite sure would not have been part of an English person’s vocabulary in the Sixties, when the film is set. I find myself having similar reactions to the Americanisms in British films like Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary and frequently feel the same jarring dissonance when watching Downton Abbey, which is notoriously full of anachronisms. In fact, I find myself wondering whether the BBC TV and film productions that make much of their revenue from being broadcast and screened in the United States deliberately write their screenplays with their American audience in mind. It’s strange, because one would think that British idioms would please foreign audiences all the more, especially the many Anglophiles who delight in the “quaintness” of all things English.

In this postmodern era, some might argue that it doesn’t matter whether or not screenwriters get their historical vocabulary wrong. I will always maintain that it’s important to get one’s history right, that the language spoken in a given period is an essential part of its culture and consciousness. But perhaps there is another explanation for the Americanisms in the more recent British productions, one that I might be reluctant to admit: that people actually use them. Having lived away from both England and India for most of my own adult life, I am no longer in close touch with the language as it is spoken today, so someone meeting me for the first time might well comment on my “chaste” or “Sixties” English. It is ironic that someone like me would even consider policing British English. It is changing with the times, as living languages do. But of course it does tend to be those individuals and groups of people who have moved away who retain usage long after it has become archaic “back home.”

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While I strongly believe in maintaining precision and nuances of meaning in word choice and language use, I do think that those who fight to maintain linguistic “correctness”—myself included—need to loosen up and recognize that new vocabulary and usage are at the leading edge of the language. There is no such thing as a pure language, and in fact, one of the reasons that English is so powerful is that it is impure, having absorbed words from so many different languages (see TMA 190, Hobson-Jobson). At a time when so many languages are endangered we should be thankful to find them changing, because it means that they are alive. Each one is a vast and ever-expanding network whose influences are legion. We don’t own it and we can’t control it as individuals, but only through a concerted movement, like those Bob Holman is helping to highlight in his walkabout to save endangered languages.

Although I can’t deny that as a young mother I felt a pang when my son first used a word that he hadn’t learned from me, I now find boundless delight in his vocabulary and use of language, so rich and multifarious, gloriously alive.

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  1. Thank you Josna, I so enjoyed your post. I think I tend to be a lot like you when it comes to precision and word choice in language, but I’m also conscious of the living dimension of any language. The tension between the two I believe it is a good thing. Without that tension there’s always the danger that a language extends itself irresponsibly, and when it does this, something precious is lost. So, I feel people like you have a key role to play in the growth of language. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Again, loved your post.

    • Thank you, Don. You present the tension very well, and I think you’re right that the relationship between maintaining meaning and embracing change is one of tension rather than balance. I like the fact that you recognize the necessity of that tension, rather than simply wishing it away.

  2. I agree with you that we need to lighten up, although again I feel as though I need to defend “proper” English pronunciation, spelling, as well as grammar. But of course it is all changing anyway.
    Still it irritates me to read incorrect spellings, or even typos, but the worst are the people who set themselves up on TV talk shows as knowledgeable and then use some glaringly wrong term or mis-pronounce a name they obviously did not research beforehand.
    It is distracting enough that I often miss their point entirely.

    Probably better to just give up and move on!

    • I know that there is something real behind our irritation, Marianne. I think we have to hold the feet of the media to the fire when they get sloppy. And yes, I find mispronunciation of names is distracting–and insulting, too, sometimes deliberately so, I feel, and at other times a sign of utter disrespect. x J

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