Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Without history, our language will wither

The English language is without doubt the most advanced, the most sophisticated, the most expressive and the most beautiful tongue in the entire world. No other language comes close to the ability of English to express the depth and range of human emotion, shades and nuances of meaning, the subtlest distinctions, with brevity and elegance, prosaically, musically and with a delightfully lively cadence. It is our gift to the world from this sceptred isle. Quite rightly we regard the grunts, clicks and squeaks that lesser breeds call languages with derision. Let them speak English and at once their mental processes rise to a higher level; their tongues, lips and facial muscles move to new and exquisite rhythms as they produce from their mouths the sweetest of sounds - English.

Yet it is a language larded with the history of a thousand years, and not only simile but the understanding of the use of a single word depends on a knowledge of that history. Whether our political class have met their Waterloo and the sound of tumbrels is on the street, whether Brown has constructed a Darien economy, whether bloggers and the fifth estate hold a thin red line against the blood-dimmed tide, and exactly what is it that England expects all depend on a knowledge of history and English literature.

Without a knowledge of English history, the rich deep flavour of the English language becomes a thin and insipid brew, a thing suited to goat-herders and those who scrabble in the dirt with sticks.

Civitas are quite rightly promoting H.E. Marshall's 'Our Island Story' ; although written in 1905, it should be required reading not just for every English schoolchild but for every would-be immigrant and every language student embarking on the magical pleasures of learning English. I commend it.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

The English language is without doubt the most advanced, the most sophisticated,

Actually, compared to most languages, English is incredibly simple. That's why it's such a popular lingua franca - it has almost no grammar and so its raw simplicity makes it easy to learn.

the most expressive and the most beautiful tongue in the entire world.

Actually, English, to non-English years, sounds hissy. The language has far too many sibilants to sound attractive to a non-native ear.

No other language comes close to the ability of English to express the depth and range of human emotion, shades and nuances of meaning, the subtlest distinctions, with brevity and elegance, prosaically, musically and with a delightfully lively cadence.

You didn't do Greek at school, did you?

rightofcentre said...

H.E.Marshall`s "Our Island History" is a jolly good book. Although a lot of people do not know that Marshall was actually an Australian at the time she wrote it.

BrianSJ said...

Please could we have some British history as well, to end the suppression of Welsh and Scottish history? (as well as pre-Anglo Saxon English history)?

Letters From A Tory said...

But that is precisely the problem - Conservatives believe in freedom for schools as a matter of principle, but that means letting schools decide what they teach and how they teach it, surely?

Anonymous said...

LfaT:

If the Tories believe in "freedom for schools as a matter of principle", why does Wavey Davey consistently say that schools should not have freedom to set their own curriculum?

Why is even his adoption of the Swedish voucher system tainted by top-down centrism about what is to be taught and how it is to be taught?

You are living in a dreamworld if you believe that Cameron's Tories will be anything other than a slightly bluer shade of NuLabor red.

Nick Drew said...

The English, the English, the English are best -

I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest !

Chris said...

Please could we have some British history as well, to end the suppression of Welsh and Scottish history? (as well as pre-Anglo Saxon English history)?

We already have those, and have had them for a long time now. English history, even as traditionally taught, is really just a misnomer for British history with an erroneous application of a particular name to the generality and whole.

In truth, the histories of the British Isles are so intimately intertwined that teaching them in isolation as national histories makes no damn sense at all. The English Civil War, for example, has been taught as "aka: the war of the three kingdoms" for a while now.

It's just that, well, by dint of size, wealth, population, position and culture England /is/ the hippo in the bed of the British Isles.

re: the English language. I think part of its charm is that, like the best games, English is easy to learn, but nigh-impossible to master. There's always more to it. Always an exception to the rule. Always another way of saying something. Always some half-forgotten, evocative byway of language down which to wander.

Demetrius said...

History can be a slippery thing but language skills are not. One of the alarming features of the last couple of decades seems to be the decline in those skills in the younger generation. I can recall the 1940's, how was it that a population most of whom never attended secondary school had higher and more complex skills? Was it to do with the world of work and the way we lived or what?

Anonymous said...

We already have those, and have had them for a long time now.

It'd be better if you actually looked at the curricula outside of England rather than falling back on kneejerk fantasies about the Keltic Konspiracy.

While I cannot speak for Wales, the multi-culturalists have done as much damage to Scots history, education and identity as they ever have to English.

You're certainly correct that the history of the four British nations are so entwined that it's erroneous to speak of them as totally separate entities. Nevertheless, the basic point remains: the political class, the teaching unions and the public sector unions have a violent antipathy towards anything British and they have united to do their best to erase any sense of historical or cultural British identity.

Mrs Rigby said...

Don't know if I entirely agree that looking back will keep a language alive, because language is a fairly fluid sort of thing that's changed over the centuries.

But, I think literacy is essential, should be at the forefront of any educational programme, because without being able to read the world is closed off and people become dependent on the spoken word or, these days, television for finding out things.

I'm going to buy that book, it looks interesting.

Didn't like school history, was delighted to rediscover it through the medium of the novel and also family history.

Wyrdtimes said...

Roll on English independence so we can get rid of this aberration "British English" I keep seeing and start calling English - English again.

Anonymous said...

England is not an island, contrary to what H E Marshall thinks. The Little Book of Patriotism which had a good run a few years back took the same line, rarely mentioning Scotland or Wales except when events impinged on England.
Thinking England was synonymous with Britain went out temporarily in the 1980s but has since come back in the 21st century with 'Britishness' If you walk into any major supermarket you might think that the UK comprises Britain, Scotland, Wales and, sometimes, Ireland. There are few if any 'English' goods on sale. The English are now supposed to say Britain when they mean England. England must never be mentioned.
Read the draft election policies, the articles in the press, and you will find 'this country' or 'Britain' used in articles on the health service or education.
We should teach English history in England within the British (and world) context.

Stephen Gash said...

I'm English, British.

Nor am I any more Anglo-Saxon than I am Danish, Norwegian or French.

I go along, somewhat, with M. J. Harper's ideas about the origins of the English language in his book "The history of Britain revealed: The shocking truth about the English language".

It is remarkable how the Germanic tribe from which the English supposedly derived their name, left no trace of their existence in Saxony/Jutland, whereas there is plenty of evidence of Saxons and Jutes.

It is just as likely that the Angles were the original inhabitants of the British Isles and have always spoken English (although it probably wasn't called English), than it is that Anglo-Saxon is the forebear of English.

It is just as likely the tiny tribe, the Angles, that Tacitus makes one reference to, were settlers from Britain into Saxony-Jutland, than Germanic invaders from Saxony/Jutland.

It is remarkable how English has around 700,000 words whereas German and French from which English was supposedly derived each have only around 50,000.

Tamianne said...

This post is beautifully written and so true!

I also speak the Chilean variety of Spanish and cannot believe the amount of words missing from their language. In Chile, at least, they have no word which differentiates warm from tepid, both are 'tibia'. Such a difference between a warm bath and a tepid one! Also, they say 'reloj' for both 'watch' and 'clock'. Oh and also, there's no word for 'quite' as in 'I'm quite tired.'. Dictionaries would have it that it's 'bastante', but that's just not true.

My husband, who is Chilean, is constantly saying to me "I can't believe you have a word for that" -very often when talking about textures, sounds and emotions (no word for excited!!).

The Chilean slang is great though and often very funny. It does provide some vocabulary which our family now mix with English to fill some linguistic gaps. Hocicon is an example (derived from hocico, meaning an animal's mouth), it can mean a tell-tale, but also somebody who just speaks too much or says the wrong thing. Sometimes we find there is a need for a not too specific term like that.

Generally though, we tend to take more words from English and put them into our Spanish than the other way around.

About the cadence and musicality of English, that is also a source of amusement when I'm in Chile as I tend to carry it over into Spanish. It's just much more fun and emphatic that way than speaking in their staccato fashion.

William Gruff said...

Leaving aside ill-informed, contentious and risible opinions on the origins and development of the English and our language, it is interesting that recent research suggests that the structures in the brain that govern language and thinking are more developed in native English speakers, of whatever nationality or 'race', than in speakers of any other language.