Sunday, April 7, 2013

Letting Go of the Language, Or Do you want to speak like William Langland?

The claim that children don't speak the language well enough (meaning: as well as the speaker) has  been with us always. The claim is that the speaker's generation will be the last to use the language "correctly" usually because of the incompetence of school system.

Of course, whenever anyone complains to be about changes in the language I always ask if they'd rather speak like William Shakespeare. I've now got a better example, but I'll never be able to use it. I just finished "Piers Plowman" (c. 1380) by William Langland which includes verse like this (Jesus during the harrowing of Hell, talking to Lucifer and claiming Adam to be taken out of Hell):

   For the dede that thei dide, thi deceite it made;
   With gile thow hem gete, ageyn all reson.
   For in my paleis, Paradis, in persone of an addre,
   Falsliche thow fettest there thyng that I lovede.
     'Thus yik a lusard with a lady visage,
  Thefliche thow me robbedest; the Olde Lawe graunteth
  That gilours be bigiled-and this is god reson:
  Dentem pro dent et oculum pro oculo.
  Ergo soule shal soule quyte and synne to synne wende.

Even ignoring the differences in spelling, I'd have trouble navigating "With guile thou him get, again all reason" and "Felony thou fittest there thing that I loved." When I said that I read Piers Plowman, I meant that I read a translation into modern English (I'm a wimp).

Why can't I switch to saying "Well, do you want to speak the language as William Langland did?": no one but me will 'get it'. There's no doubt about it: My life is hell.

And there's a reason that I'm picking on Langland: I found a passage earlier on in Plowman where Langland complains how learned scholars have lost their purity and, as a result, "Grammar, the very foundation of all learning utterly baffles the children who try to study it. If you look carefully, none of our educated people today know how to write verses that scan or produce a decent piece of composition." Just to be clear, what Langland was complaining about was that children had lost the ability to speak Norman French. That was certainly too bad but, as far as Langland was concerned, the real loss was that these children were also losing the ability to speak Latin because it was Norman French which was used to teach Latin. In other words, Langland was complaining that the kids could only speak English.You know, I'm willing to accept that, this time, the kids really weren't as well educated as the parents.

Reading or read:

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