Saturday 12 March 2011

Talking proper

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, British Library

The current exhibition at the British Library, ‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’, reflects on the ongoing debate about language and its use. The British Library’s attempt at trying to show the depth and complexity of the English language was always going to fall short, but at least it gives visitors an insight and leave them questioning the language they use and how they use it. 

The opening to the exhibition documents the historical background to the language, noting its North Germanic and Celtic roots and how it then developed further with the addition of Roman Latin and French. Illustrating these changes the exhibition offers many impressive artefacts such as the oldest surviving copy of Beowulf, one of the nine remaining Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and a small corner dedicated to the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Before getting too bogged down with the historical side, however, the exhibition leads you into a much larger room where it challenges your ideas on language. On display are a variety of exhibits, including a slang dictionary, Jonathan Swift’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue and even a cameo by Viz’s very own Sweary Mary.

In the main bulk of the room, the exhibition moves away from dusty old history to the function, form and variety in the English language. Evolving English is not just a collection of ancient texts and half singed manuscripts but offers a chance to see the full versatility of the language from Shakespeare to Public Enemy. A particular highlight of the exhibition is an interactive screen allowing the visitor to sample the accents and dialects from all over the UK and really experience language in its finer colloquial terms, not the stuffy BBC standardised form.

In such an institution as the British Library you might expect a structured, in-depth chronology of the influences on how our language came to be, with ancient academics lecturing on the fundamental importance of ‘proper’ English. But the exhibition’s stance on language as an untameable, unruly and free phenomenon is surprising as much as it is challenging. How someone uses language carries with it as much prejudice as how someone looks. One could be further mistaken for believing the exhibition would treat local twangs and drawls as being quaint, but it does not deal with the broad range in such patronising terms but champions it as true English. It goes so far as to give examples of this kind of snobbery by the writers of Punch. A small cartoon showing a well dressed man handing a woman a large letter H whilst remarking ‘I beg your pardon, ma’am, but I think you dropped this.’ This cartoon in the context of the exhibition seems belligerently patronising.

The satirist Jonathan Swift attacks the poets of the Restoration and 18th century for their crimes against language in an essay sent to parliament requesting an Academy for English, stating simply that ‘our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions.’ This elitist view that language must abide by a strict set of guidelines and the poets of his day are criminal to do anything different seems absolutely absurd when placed in the same exhibition as Chaucer and later the Viz annual. Nevertheless, some people today, Lynne Truss for example, are condemning improper use of language as if they were judge, jury and executioner.  An argument they use is often for clarity, but ‘clarity’ is almost Orwellian in its ambitions. As campaigns run to get a supermarket to change ’10 items or less’ to its correct ’10 items or fewer’ it is hard to see how anyone would struggle with such a small error. Rather, the campaigners’ success heightens their snobbery.

Lynne Truss’ war against everyone from Americans to teenagers to green grocers is a short sighted belligerent war on those-too-stupid to use the apostrophe or spell correctly. When, in fact, language changes so rapidly, to try and pin it to a set of rules is lunacy, and if these rules exist, who decided Truss was the one to make them? The war waged is also on the modern style developed through text messaging is also a highlight of the exhibition at the British Library. The new style, conscious of number of letters due to character limits for SMS messages has often been accused for the downturn in accuracy of spelling and grammar. A label for too quickly attached to the younger generation with the only implication that becomes apparent of totally expressive words and grammar is the perception of a lack of care.

To stop before it becomes inane rantings about the lords and laws of language, the exhibition highlights that language belongs to no one. Furthermore, language belongs to no one but yourself, and although it tells the listener or reader so much about your age, nationality, education, class, it is something that should be embraced not institutionalised like the a BBC newsreader. The challenges that ‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’ makes are of vital importance, if Truss and Swift succeed in their pinning down our language then the Orwellian nightmare has already started.


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