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The History And Future Of The English Language

The History And Future Of The English Language

oxford-english-dictionaryThe English language is an important one. Fluency is not only compulsory for pilots and air traffic controllers, but it’s also the official language of the Commonwealth of Nations and the World Bank and, with over 1.8 billion people speaking it, it’s the world’s most widely used language too.

The diversity of the language is also pretty impressive. There are many different accents, tones, pronunciations and inflections that differentiate its 1.8 billion speakers. For instance, if for one reason or another a Liverpudlian finds him or herself conversing with a Deep South Texan from the other side of the world, they may find it near on impossible to understand what the other is saying; which, when you think about it, is rather remarkable when you consider that the language only originated from a relatively small island off mainland Europe.

The History:

The English Language we see today, like everything else, is a result of many years of cultural and humanistic evolution. It’s possible to date the origins of the English language back to the Germanic tribes, when they invaded Britain from Scandinavia via the North Sea in 450AD. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were separate tribes and inhabited what was then referred to as “Englaland” and spoke “Englisc”, words that were later used to derive “England” and “English”. This, in turn, forced the native inhabitants of Britain northwards into Scotland and westwards into Wales and as far as Ireland.

The use of Old English flourished until William the Conqueror invaded and conquered England in 1066. The Normans spoke of French dialect, and explains why we have many words of French origin in our language today (entrepreneur, déjà vu, espionage, etc). Because of this, a division ensued, separating the lower classes who spoke English, and the upper classes who spoke French. However, naturally, many French words rubbed off on the English speakers, creating a ‘Middle English’. Middle English prospered, and succeeded the Norman lead tongue in the 14th century.

The English language continued to develop, and by the 15th century, Middle English was a thing of the past and was replaced by Early-Modern English. The ability to print meant that books became cheaper, and as a result, allowed many people who would have otherwise not been able to afford to read literature, let alone produce works themselves, the capacity to do so. Playwrights and poetry, for example, became very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the Globe theatre being built in 1599, being able to house 3,000 people (the vast majority of which would be standing).

By the 1800s, the English language looked and sounded wholly different from what their Anglo-Saxon ancestors would have spoken. Heavily aided by the standardization of spelling and grammar by London based publishers and introduction of new words, either by adoption of words from foreign derivation or words devised internally (because of the industrial revolution, for instance), the transformation from Early-modern English to Late-modern English was a subtle yet effective one.

The Future:

Besides our inherited genealogy, our environment will ultimately shape us in terms of our opinions, attitudes and mental and physical abilities; as metaphor has it, everyone starts out as a blank canvas, and many factors, such as the economic status and social and political views of your parents, will aid in the painting of it. Such factors will strongly influence a child’s personality and aptitude, and the development of key literacy and communication skills are of no exception.

twitter-birdBefore the days of the mobile phone and the home computer, which were first introduced in 1973 and 1976 respectively, children were far less likely to be subjected to half finished, poorly structured text, or social media messages. And, although ‘text-language’ has been around a lot longer than most of us may think – even dating back to the first people who sent telegrams over 120 years ago – the exposure we’re subjected to now is incomparable (believe it or not, receiving ‘Omg u iz well jel’ was not as commonplace in the 1900s than as it is now). Moreover, the indolent social norm seems only to be gaining in strength, and in some circumstances, messages that do contain perfect English look more abnormal than the messages that don’t!

Information attained by the Office for National Statistics, suggests that 21 million households (83%) in Great Britain had internet access in 2013; an increase of 10% since 2010. It’s then safe to say that both children and adults have more access to information, but crucially, more access to means of communication at a click of a button. Social media sites are a multi-billion dollar industry, with Twitter valuing itself at an eye watering $10.5bn last week (13/09/2013). Combined, Facebook and Twitter have over 1.5 billion users and popularity only looks set to increase.

It was recently discovered, rather shockingly, that nearly 1 in 10 children under the age of 5 in the UK have a mobile phone. Who knows why these children have phones, but apparently they do. Safety concerns? I’m not convinced. How many parents do you know of that willingly let their little ones out of sight even for a minute, let alone long enough to justify spending the money on an ever more costly mobile phone?

This statistic is perplexing, as the most common uses for a mobile phone seem not apply. I’m struggling to imagine children only as old as 5, arranging to meet friends or gossiping endlessly on the phone or through text message. One can only assume that many 4-5 year old coffee mornings go on under the radar, and that conversations on Peppa pig and the Magic Roundabout are too extensive to be limited to the classroom.

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The introduction to mobile phones at such a young age seems fruitless, and at worse, harmful. Exposing them to a culture of poor grammar, poor spelling and where various faces have surpassed punctuation marks – before they’ve had the chance to learn the basics – seems deeply illogical.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

In some cases, depending who you’re messaging, the time saved by shortening words or missing them out altogether is merely transferred over to the recipient, whereby they now have the task of decoding it. I suspect that the men and women at Bletchley Park would have read some of the texts I’ve been sent with sweaty palms… In 2009, MPs warned that there were an “unacceptably” high number of people in England that cannot read, write and count properly, and the Public Accounts Committee said that in previous years that there were nearly 40,000 pupils leaving secondary school without a D-G grade in English. However, with this said, the national curriculum in England, taken from the Department for Education, should in theory ensure that:

“Teachers should develop all [Key stage 1 and 2] pupils’ reading and writing in all subjects to support their acquisition of knowledge”, that “pupils should be taught to read fluently, understand extended prose (both fiction and non-fiction) and be encouraged to read for pleasure”, that “pupils should develop the stamina and skills to write at length, with accurate spelling and punctuation” and be “taught the correct use of grammar.”

Evidently, these targets are not being met, and I fear that the continuation of rushed, mistake riddled messaging is doing no favours. Giving children the right footing on something so fundamental is imperative, as most if not all employers seek key literacy skills before anything else.

Together with Americanisms, often concealed within children’s TV programmes that have been shipped over from the US, and the indifferent attitudes from typically younger generations, the retention of the English Language and prevention of ‘words’ such as “lol” and “omg” from being entered into the Oxford Dictionary seem futile.

Let us all hope that in 200 years from now, there will still be at least a few words longer than 3 syllables long in common use, and that Late-modern English isn’t left trailing behind Late-late-modern English for a while to come.

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