Thursday, 26 January 2012



Language Barriers


English has the feature of having two distinctive registers to its vocabulary, whose tones differ in terms of learnedness.  This is also extended in the higher register to at least two further degrees, and of course this is a simplistic way of looking at it.  Although there were certain features before that, most of this division is connected to the Norman invasion of 1066 and the gradual loss of territories on the Continent, leading to the nobility throwing their lot in with this land and their language gradually merging with our speech.  This nobility is reflected today in the illusion of greater intelligence conferred by the use of what might be called “long words”, though some of them are not.

There are a few cases of words taken from Latin and French before the Norman conquest which are notable for lacking “poshness”.  Examples are the Latin “mouse” and “pope” and the French “proud”, which was also transformed in a very English way into the abstract noun “pride”.  Quite a lot of other words are now so ingrained in English that they too have lost their status, such as “very” and “use”.  There are also a number of other words from Scandinavian languages which are often so close to their English counterparts that they have merged or carry a somewhat different though related sense:  they lack a change in register.  These include “drink” and “drench”, “skip" and “shift” and “them” and “’em”.

It’s perfectly common for a language to have more than one register or even for the more technical terms to be from a language closely related to Latin when the language itself isn’t, but there are also many languages which are less open than English in this respect, including German (and Icelandic even more so), Hebrew and Chinese.  Whereas these may have registers, there is little difference in the origin of the words in each and so the meanings can be clearer to more people.

The idea of registers in this context communicates something other than a dictionary definition style of meaning.  It also fulfils the roles of establishing an in-group and an out-group.  Language can put at ease or it can be about asserting superiority for one or more people using a particular register.  It can also be an anti-language, like the use of particular words in youth culture, either for good or ill.

Learning the jargon can be a passport to understanding and a form of shorthand.  Although the words can be longer, they might not be as long as the words needed to explain the meaning otherwise.  There is also a shortcut to learning much technical vocabulary:  learn Greek and Latin and the meaning of many technical terms is uncovered.  This is because, as well as the French/English division in English-speaking countries, Latin and to a lesser extent Greek have dominated intellectual communication in the past in European culture.

Using a higher verbal register can also help convince people that you know what you’re talking about, or even that there is content to what you’re saying when there isn’t.  It can also be used to refer to things which exist but aren’t worth thinking about, or persuade others to think like you think, even when that isn’t in their best interests or in the interests of a larger group.  Examples of such language would include a phrase such as “educational premises”, which assumes that learning is best facilitated in locations dedicated to the purpose.

Beyond this, not all learning is linguistic.  Learning to test a baby for clicky hips, to knit, drive, paint or draw are all substantially non-linguistic.  Significantly, though many practical skills benefit or can be communicated well using language, they often include a substantial practical, “hands-on” element.  These are often the skills which ensure our survival.  For instance, driving is a  hazardous activity and there is a craft to avoiding the dangers inherent in it which appears to be second nature to many motorists.  In a different sense, the ability to knit well seems not to be primarily linguistic to me, who cannot knit, but enables one to make clothes.  Learning to provide the classic three basic needs of food, clothes and shelter, and many things which follow from them, are substantially non-linguistic skills.  Moreover, many linguistic skills can be acquired simply by manipulating symbols without grasping their meaning.

Given all of this, and i know this is a bit of a “splodge” of a blog posting, suggests three areas of learning which might be important.

  • If you learn Latin and Greek, it helps you to fake being clever and is a passport to understanding technical vocabulary.  It isn’t just about dead white men, partly because the long chain of dead white men who did use those languages were good at hoarding their learning rather than sharing it.  Access to that information can be gained by learning classical languages, even if the language concerned is in a mother tongue.
  • Take care with language use so that we can both say things on our own terms and include others, thereby making sure we have more freedom and “craftiness”.  Spot when others are taking away our words or language to serve narrow-minded or short-sighted needs, which may not be ours or even theirs.
  • Ease off on reading and writing so we don’t plonk children in front of a book in the same way they might be plonked in front of a screen.  This has its place and shouldn’t be denigrated, but people need to learn to do things themselves rather than just reading and writing about them.