Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Death of English

Reading Beowulf

 My sister recently shared with me an article that I found to be both humorous, disturbing, and sort of sad.  Until I thought about it.  I'm still thinking about it.

So I have decided to take a close look at the journey that the English language has taken.  I have chosen excerpts from what are generally considered to be classics in our language.  I start off with the poem of Beowulf, simply because it is the earliest writing in our language of which I am aware. (See how I avoided ending my sentence with a preposition?)  Chaucer is considered to be the father of English literature, and Shakespeare is known as England's national poet.  Jane Austen I selected simply for being my personal favorite, and Stephanie Meyer I think was an obvious choice with which to end my review. (See how careful I am being?)  I wonder what Stephanie Meyer will be hailed as, a hundred years from now?

From the first line of the poem Beowulf (3rd or 4th century):
Hwaet we Gar-Dena       in gear-dagum
peod-cyninga     prym gefrunon,
hu da  aepelingas     ellen fremedon.

Let's move on to Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales (1300's), shall we?
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

A little Shakespeare (1500's). Let's go with Hamlet, as, yes Mrs. Springman, I still know it:

To be, or not to be. That is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.  To die, to sleep, no more. And by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream.  Aye, there's the rub for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.  (I'll stop there. You're welcome.)

Continuing on to Jane Austen (1700's) (a personal favorite):
IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

And at last, I thought we'd finish with Stephanie Meyer's infamous Twilight (2000's) (another personal favorite)
I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

Wherein I play the Devil's Advocate:

What exactly is so wrong about the misuse of an apostrophe, or comma, or misspelled words? Do you suppose that Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens never made a grammatical error? In my introduction to Chaucer's Canturbury Tales the man who translated the copy I have wrote that there are some issues with the original text.  Each editor and translator takes a different approach to dealing with these mistakes, but they are there in the original.  And this is the man regarded as The Father of English Poetry. We frequently hold these ancient writers up as the ideal, and yet they were not perfect. Not only that, but our language truly goes back so much farther even them. If we were to try and resuscitate the English language, don't we really just mean to bring it back to the English we learned in our own second grade classroom? For I'm sure we would all willingly agree that it would be useless to try and bring back the English of Beowulf. Personally, I blame Geoffrey Chaucer. It was his brilliant idea to write colloquially, and I think that was one of the initial downfalls (Although, clearly not the first, as his English was already drastically different from that of the poem of Beowulf). For isn't that what is happening to our language today, for instance, on Facebook statuses when I see "i luv yuu"? (which, incidentally, I have seen.) And so, I ask again. What is so wrong with writing how we speak?

Please, discuss.  (And, please keep in mind that that was me playing the Devil's Advocate  because I thought it was an interesting position.  It does not reflect the full range of my actual thoughts on this topic.)


  1. It might be nice to add a bit of old informal English like Thee and Thou just because they are cool. But in the end it really does not matter as long as there is a clear progression that future translators can follow and as long as current mainstream america uses the same written style for most communication.

    I personally do not like even using contractions in written English other that the very very most common and even those I will typically edit out latter when able.

  2. as long as I can understand what the person is saying, which a lot of the time I can't. then I really don't care how they write things! Its when a person can not get the point across when writing and the words get all mixed up or left out and the meaning comes across the wrong way that really gets to me. I like talking to people in person that way I can know for sure when to do and do not understand me!

    Thats just me!

  3. The Beowulf reminds me of Welsh and that makes me happy. At least, I'm pronouncing it all as I would pronounce Welsh since Welsh contains many of the same letter combinations. Anyway...I'll go read the article and comment on the actual substance of the post at some point, I promise. :)

  4. i finally read this post, and can now continue to say that i read ALL your posts. i dont know what my thoughts are on this topic. i dont mind when people write how they pronounce, but it does slow me down. i.e. Curtis types out everything in (text messages) the shortest way he can (to=2 be=b you=u), and im cool w/ that but it definitely slows me down. he isnt writing novels though, so i guess that's okay. he also doesnt use punctuation, which really throws me, but i have learned to catch on. i still have Alex translate for me sometimes. lol so in conclusion, uniform is good, because if i had to read novels like i do text messages. i would go back to never reading again. ;)

    oh, and i love the pictures of Hallie. they are so good. she looks so grown up and so sweet.

  5. So, are you only going to play the devil's advocate, or are you going to share your opinion as well? You asked for ours, and I would like yours. ;)

    I think that language will always change, and I am okay with that. I don't mind that dictionaries and usage guides help slow the change down, because if it happened too quickly than rather it be hundreds of years before we can't understand English, it might only be decades, and that would be sad—to not understand the English that your grandparents wrote in as children.

    However, language is only necessary as a means for people to understand each other, and as people and cultures change, it makes sense that language changes.

    And I have always favored a more efficient spelling system for the English language. I just meant to go to a phonetic one, not a system created by lazy typers and people who can't spell. Ooooh watch out on that judgment call!!

    Hallie reading Beowulf is possibly one of the cutest scenes I have ever seen!