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world wide wednesdays :: speaking englishes

i don't envy people who have to learn english. sure, you have vast reservoirs of popular culture to use as research material [dominic, whose english is so flawless that he can easily pass for anglophone, credits sesame street with his success], but it's irritatingly inconsistent and defined more by its exceptions than its rules. there's also an unpleasant tendency to use the exact same word to mean completely different things. and even if the english have been decent enough to assign different pronunciations, you're pretty much up the creek if you're reading. if you read [not red] the sentence "i took the lead", you'd have no idea whether i was bragging or confessing, even if you were perfectly fluent in english. or, to be even more difficult, consider if i told you "dominic gave me a really nice bow", you'd be left wondering whether i got a girlish adornment for my hair or coat, or if i'd received a weapon, even if you heard me say it out loud. lots of languages can be complicated, but the prevalence of english and the importance that's placed on learning it in many areas of the world mean that a lot more people have to suffer through its trials. [and let's not get into the fact that english-speakers offer advice like "i before e except after c", which would be awesome, if it weren't wrong more often than right. but it's easier to remember than "use e before i, unless the syllable is pronounced with a long "e" and does not directly follow the letter c, in which case put i before e".]

what really makes me sad about people who take the time to learn english is that they might then be cast into the world of english speakers, which i can only imagine would be horrifying. i mean, if you ended up in canada or large parts of the united states, you'd probably do fine. sure they say we have different accents and i can tell that i pronounce things differently than barack obama, but if you threw [not through] someone into a room with the two of us and asked them to identify where each of us was from by identifying our accents, there's an excellent chance that the person wouldn't be able to do so. i can almost always pick out an accent from the maritimes [specifically the maritimes, not newfoundland, which is a totally different thing], but to most people, maritimers just sound canadian, or american. my point is that while there are a few very distinct accents in north american english, a non-native speaker cast adrift in the continent wouldn't struggle to understand most people. put them in england and it's a completely different matter. [side note :: to avoid getting pilloried for oversimplification, i'm going to plunk a link to the wikipedia article on north american english accents right here. yes, there are a number of different accents, but it's nothing compared to the mother country.]

it's a befuddling thing: the country for which the english language is named seems to have real trouble deciding what the language actually is.



keep in mind, we're talking about a country that could fit neatly in the pocket of all but three of canada's provinces and territories. yes, it's more densely populated, but unlike the caucasus region, there aren't great mountain ranges and cavernous valleys keeping people apart. so in theory, britons proximity to each other should result in less variation, not more. and yet the country seems to have more accents than canada has moose. how does that even work?

well, i'm not about to attempt a history of either england or its language here, but even a cursory glance at the country's past does give some hints as to how the current jumble developed. first of all, people kept invading and leaving bits of their language around like food wrappers at a music festival. second of all, people kept fighting. england has been inhabited for a very long time; the oldest human footprints outside of africa were found in norfolk and the island has been inhabited steadily since the end of the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago. however, no one really seems to have given a shit about the place until the romans got there. the traditional story was that caesar arrived and instilled order on a bunch of people who had basically been sitting there eating berries and, apparently, waiting for him to show up. others claim that he displaced the mysterious celts [and you just know that they're getting a world wide wednesdays to themselves at some point] who had lived there since the dawn of time. the truth is that, when the romans arrived, they saw ample evidence that several waves of people had been there before them and all had left their marks. modern day genetics tells us that the romans were right- even before the roman invasion, england was a big mess o'genes. but after the romans got there, people started writing things down and we therefore know a lot more about the last two thousand years of english history than we know about the ten thousand before it.

the romans didn't actually contribute a lot to english other than the habit of paying attention to what was happening and writing it down. because of this, we know that the romans left and that several tribes from modern-day germany, belgium, the netherlands and denmark started visiting more and more frequently, eventually deciding to stay. the angles, saxons, jutes, frisians and others didn't arrive unified and they didn't become so for several hundred years after they settled. herein lies the first "aha!" of english history. "english" is derived from "angles" because it is with their arrival that the language first began to take shape. lots of shapes. each group of invaders [who weren't really invading, since they'd been in and out of the british isles even when the romans were there and the britons had asked them to lend a hand in keeping out the crazy neighbours from ireland and scotland after the romans left, which the germanic tribes chose to interpret as carte blanche to move in permanently] established their own little beachhead and guarded it. so from its earliest days, english was developed in pockets. in fact, if you look at the divisions of the anglo-saxon kingdoms, they are still roughly contiguous with the different regional accent groups. [side note :: a second thing that the romans contributed was the creation/ demarcation of scotland. while the romans subjugated the britons with relative ease on much of the island, as they worked their way north they realised that the land was less useful and, more importantly, it was inhabited by legions of pale blonde and ginger-haired psychopaths. showing the judiciousness that allowed them to dominate so much of the world, the romans built a wall which kept these psychopaths segregated from the development of the english language for several hundred years. which is why, when a native english speaker hears a glaswegian accent even today, they're unlikely to realise what language is being spoken.]


the new germanic kingdoms each jockeyed for position at the top of the anglo heap, however they were all eventually subjugated by vikings from denmark who took over the whole place and joined it with their existing empire of denmark and norway. but it wasn't long before something went awry. specifically, the anglo-saxon king edward the confessor evidently spent a lot of time being pious [he was canonized and was england's patron saint for a few hundred years before st. george] and not nearly enough time impregnating mrs. confessor. he died without a direct heir in january 1066, at which point all hell broke lose among the various contestants for "england's next top ruler".

in late september that same year, william of normandy, edward's cousin by marriage, won the contest by defeating and killing his principle rival, the anlgo-saxon harold ii. normandy being part of france, william brought with him a new royal language, bits of which tumbled out the windows of the palace and started to get mixed up with the jumble of formerly anglo-saxon words and a few viking interloper terms that the common people were using to communicate. many of the more "complicated" english words [like "complicated", strangely enough] were originally french and were appropriated. also, while historians originally believed that the romans had left traces of latin behind them when they left, it now seems more likely that latin-based words in english came over with the normans as well.

one of william's most important contributions to the development of english, aside from bringing in lots of our most delicious-sounding words [like delicious!], was that he helped to establish a long-term class division that shaped the language on the basis of economic status. even though he had won the crown, william was aware that he remained surrounded by enemies: there remained others with arguably stronger claims to the throne than he [especially since william was a bastard, so his claim to the throne through marriage was predicated on a marriage that had never happened], the danish were always a threat to reclaim the island and the northern lands beyond the wall were still full of the crazy ginger people. in order to strengthen his position, william told his norman friends that they could move to england and take pretty much whatever they wanted from the nasty anglo-saxons. his famous "domesday book" [basically the first national census of england and wales] showed that norman names dominated the landowning class in the country and that the anglo-saxons who had formed the gentry under previous rulers had been displaced.


and if what you're trying to understand is why english is so bloody complicated, you don't have to continue a lot further than that. the legacy of the anglo-saxon kingdoms birthed a fierce regionalism which allowed early linguistic differences to be perpetuated, while the influx of a french gentrified class meant that the upper class in england spoke with both a distinct accent and a different vocabulary.

most important, though, was the fact that, as english developed, it just kept adding on bits from the various people who showed up there. the reason that english seems weird is that it is weird. french, italian, spanish and portuguese trace their roots back to latin. sure there are regional differences, but a lot of the basis is the same. german, dutch and flemish stem from the same roots and you can certainly tell this when you look at them. english comes from everywhere and as a result, looks a bit of a patchwork mess. ours is a duct tape language. [side note :: english comes from everywhere, it should be noted, except england. we don't know a lot about the language of the britons who lived in england before the romans arrived. the fingerprints of their speech can be found in the brythonic branch of the celtic languages, comprised of welsh, breton and the deceased cornish tongue, however we know very little about the "original english".]

and that, my friends, is why it sucks to learn english. because when you're learning english, you're not learning one language, you're learning to speak a half dozen archaic languages in a half-assed way and using rough guidelines to bind them together into something that resembles a unified whole.

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