Purity of language has always seemed to me a strange concept, a kind of linguistic conservatism and isolationism, a kind you would find on the list of Trump’s polices. But before I explain, let me invite you to look at the extract from a poem shown above (the box on the right-hand side is the translation). What language do you think this is?
Well, it is our dear and beloved English, but from the 14th century. Or… kind of. Actually, it is three languages because England at the time was a trilingual (!) country. At home, most people spoke (Middle) English; school was in Latin; and all the official government business and university education were in French. Going back to our little poem, its first line (about school) is in Latin, the second (which talks about Paris, where the author probably went to university) is in French, and the third (about love) is of course in the author’s mother tongue – English. Now here’s trilingualism in action, mixing together a few disparate linguistic ingredients to produce a few centuries later a crazy cocktail that is the modern English. One might argue that this is terrible: the poor Middle English disappeared, mutated as a result of toxic contamination of the foreign tongues. Or did it enrich itself, grow, and evolve? I would go with the latter. I think though, if there had been a Trump of Middle English, building walls around language, and banning foreign words trying to immigrate to England, it might have really disappeared.
You know Trump’s moto “Make America great again!”? It’s not clear, however, when was the last time America was great? Was it not great last year, just before he won the elections? Or was it 70 years ago, before the Civil Rights Movement? I think that is the problem with conservatism: if you want to get rid of the new and go back to the old, which old do you pick? I’m sure that grandmother telling her grandson off for his poor vocabulary was herself reprimanded by her own grandmother for some other lacks in language.
Did you know, that the UN Russian Language day is celebrated on 6 June, which is the birthday of Alexander Pushikin, the great Russian poet? Some people think this is ironic because Pushkin is sometimes claimed to have ruined Russian with foreign words. But of course, most of us call him the father of modern Russian, as Shakespeare is called the father of modern English for inventing some 1700 new words and single-handedly altering the English grammar. Were those egregious crimes against linguistic puritanism or were they grand reforms by genius men? We all know the answer to that one.
But are we, mere mortals, not allowed to experiment with language, mix it up a bit, to make it fit our lives and personalities?
* the extract at the top of the page is from The Harley Lyrics, a collection of literature written probably in the 1330s in Hertfordshire