The British Library is hosts the first ever exhibition exploring the English language from Anglo-Saxon runes to regional dialects and modern day rap. This will explore the English language– one of the most talked and talked about languages in the world– in all its national and international diversity.
Evolving English will place iconic books and manuscripts–the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, Shakespeare ‘quartos’, the King James Bible, Dr Johnson’s dictionary– alongside everyday texts and media to show the many social, cultural and historical strands from which the language has been woven.
My father had immigrated to English in the forties and fifties to train and work as a Chartered Accountant after which he returned to India, to work at Controller of Accounts at Tatas, one of India’s largest companies. He often told me about the cockney greeting, “Nice day, inn’t ?” and how people called him “my love,” or “darling”. I was delighted to be similarly greeted by total strangers when I moved to England, 30 years after he left it, experiencing the continuity of the English language.
Though the language Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote is still understandable to us today, English is continuously evolving. People are reading more than ever—though not necessarily books or traditional media. Facebook, blogs and twitter mean that a new idea or phrase permeates the collective consciousness in days or weeks rather than years.
As such, English, our most hospitable language has adopted popular phrases such as Stephen Covey’s “Paradigm Shift,” Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” or “Outliers,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s “Black Swan Events” or even “the credit crunch,” once an arcane term only used by economists, according to The Times. I, as the owner of a small publishing company use and see the phrase “the long tail” weekly, though in fact Chris Anderson first used in in 2004. The word “snarky” entered the English language through a Heidi Julavits essay, also of 2004. I write this article for another neologism, a blog, “weblog.”
In fact, each sub-group and sub-culture have their own jargon, which is often incomprehensible to outsiders. See the amusing video How to Speak Christianese http://theoxfordchristian.blogspot.com/2010/12/how-to-speak-christianese.html.
Visit the website. It includes a quiz which I played at the Egghead level, getting 5 out of 6, though I admit some answers were guesswork. Do play it and tell me your score. http://www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish/quiz.html
Here are the facts about the exhibition:
- Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices opens at the British Library on 12 November and is open until 3 April
- Cost: free
- While at the exhibition you can record your voice to add to the collection preserved for future study and analysis.
- The URL is www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish
- Tweet using #evolvingenglish