Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ancient Pedantry

It's a fairly universally acknowledged fact that Mrs The Millbrooker and I can be a tad pedantic on occasion when it comes to using the English language; we're careful about the difference between "might" and "may", for example. And woe betide anyone trying to use the hideously incorrect phrase "very true" (nothing can be very true; true is as far as it goes, it's an absolute - how can something be more true than true?)
Anyway, as we were musing between ourselves last night from opposite sides of a sizzling fire (damp coal - what can I say?), Mrs The M produced a tome from our moderate library of reference books to illustrate a point that concerns about changes (or misuse) of language is hardly anything new, and that English is very much a living tongue, so changes of use must be expected between generations, genders and locales.
One day, a pedant in the future will be ranting about the stealing of the word gay. "How dare they use it to mean 'happy and carefree'!? That's not what it means at all!"

This is an image of William Caxton (1422?-1491)...

...who, in 1490, wrote this in a preface to his translation work Eneydos. I liked it so much I'm going to reproduce it here. It is in English (albeit Middle English) which goes some way to show how a living language constantly changes. It's still entirely understandable, and yet almost alien.

"...And certaynly our language now used varyeth ferre from that whiche was used and spoken whan I was borne...

...And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a shippe in Tamyse (Thames) for to have sayles over the see into Zelande, and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them.

And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete, and specyally he axyd after "eggys". And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunte was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wold have hadde egges, and she understode him not.

And thenne at last a nother sayd that he wolde have "eyren". Then the good wyf sayd that she understode hym wel. Loo! What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, "egges" or "eyren"? Certaynly, it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage."

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