Friday, November 21, 2008

Tradjedy (yes, I know)

"History of the English Language" is a class most people would avoid at all costs. I am the sort of person who gets mentally sidetracked for a good ten minutes if he sees an advertisement for a sale on "our entire stock of socks." I mean the whole stock of them! The whole sock stock! I'm shocked at this stock of socks! I'm selling my stock in that shop because of this shocking sock stock sale!

So, yeah, for me it was a pretty fascinating class.

What I found most important in the subject matter was how the notion of "standard language," or what we think of as "correct" language (i.e. grammar, spelling) came to be. Spelling, for instance, was a child of the printing press. The people in that trade weren't going to fool with ten different spellings for the same word, so they picked a spelling and went with it. Having single spellings repeated through a large number of documents, no longer subject to the whims of individual longhand, gave them a kind of validation. And soon the "correct" spellings were being enforced in the classroom.

It's a strange thing, linguistically. Living languages are always changing. It's like a big ball of clay on which every speaker gets to place one finger. But they change through use.

So while our spoken language has evolved, gradually changing pronunciations over time, our written language has been largely frozen.

But it's fine. Though the idea of putting a lock on the language makes me somehow uneasy, I understand the practical need for a standardization.

Where it gets weird for me, though, is when we have competitions to see who can spell the best. It's like people don't understand that we made up the spellings. We might as well make up a correct way to eat pancakes, then put some kids on stage and see which one can eat pancakes closest to what we decided. That "skill" would be about as useful as knowing how to spell "gyromancy."*

*Sometimes the footnote gag writes itself. Firefox's spell checker doesn't recognize gyromancy.

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