One of the things on my list for the New Year is to go to the British Library exhibition on Evolving English, which continues until the 3rd April 2011. It has treasures such as the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, Shakespeare ‘quartos’, the King James Bible, Dr Johnson’s dictionary and recordings of famous speeches by Churchill, Gandhi and Mandela — together with early examples of advertising posters, lists of slang, early newspapers from around the world, trading records, comics, adverts, children’s books, dialect recordings, text messages and web pages.
I speak and write a particularly hybrid English—in an accent to match!!–because of my migrations between three English speaking countries. I began speaking English in India where I was one of the quarter of a million who spoke it as a first language. (Another 232 million speak it as a second or third language). I first came to England as an undergraduate student at Somerville College, Oxford University, and spent three years here in the eighties. After that, I moved to America to go to graduate school, and lived there for seventeen years. I returned to England seven years ago, and have lived here ever since.
What particularly struck me was how much spoken British English had evolved in the 17 years I had lived elsewhere. There was a plethora of new slang. I saw controversial ads for a “Chav-free holiday.” Chav? What’s that? Wikipedia suggests the offensive backronym “Council Housed And Violent” or the suggestion that pupils at Cheltenham Ladies’ College used the word to describe the young men of the town (“Cheltenham Average”). Chavs, in turn, according to my research, have their distinctive vocabulary and world view summarized by the statement, “I ain’t bovvered.”
Indeed, language had evolved as much as fashion had. Slang evolves constantly as yesterday’s vivid terms become today’s hackneyed phrases, and we need new words to express our strongest emotions and hang-ups. In fact, there is probably no better way to track the evolution of English than to compare the Facebook statuses of my young friends in their teens and twenties with those of my generation, people in their late forties. The younger people almost appear to be speaking a different language, more vivid and colourful than our language, which tends to be more static. Facebook and blogs probably contribute to a far more rapid dissemination of slang compared to 25 years ago when slang originated and caught on within one’s peer group.
The overuse of strong words, of course, leads to the watering down of their meaning. “The reaction was immense” people say, when it was mild approbation. “I massively respect you,” “I am desperate to see you,” people say to express rather mild respect or desire. There are new expressions of delight, “Score. Major score. Win.” Another expression I have come across is the present continuous, often modified by so, “I am so loving this.” Though British English seems to be to be drifting in the direction of Americanisms (“how awesome!!”) there are charming British-only expressions adopted from the language of children—“Six sleeps till Christmas” abbreviated to Crimbo, which is a neologism I hadn’t heard a quarter century ago.
Visit the website. It includes a quiz which I initially played at the Easy-Peasy level, getting 5 out of 6, though I admit some answers were guesswork. I then tried the Egghead level, and scored the same!! http://www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish/quiz.html,
Here are the facts about the exhibition:
- Evolving English: One Language, Many Voicesopens 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