Impurity or innovation?

2017-02-28_04-00-14

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

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6 thoughts on “Impurity or innovation?

  1. Dear Andrei, thank you for such a great post. Language purity always evoked some mixed feelings in me. I tended to support the conservative perspective on this controversial issue and at the same time I constantly doubted whether language impurity indeed should be dispraised. Your post somehow made me draw parallels between language and culture. For the first time, I saw some similarities between the concepts of language impurity and globalization. I am definitely not against globalization even though it brings mixtures of cultures with it. It is a natural process. Maybe my attitude towards language impurity will become more liberal

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    1. @sashaxxxx, I am glad I managed to change someone’s attitude, even if just a little bit. You are exactly right: language change is a natural process. Some languages merge and become one, while others split into different varieties, such as US and Australian English. While standard variety, reserved for official and government business, should probably be a bit more conservative, set the everyday communication free, don’t strangle it with rules and regulations. When it comes to language, I am all for DEscription, not PREscription!

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  2. Thank you, Andrey, for this post! I enjoyed reading it very much! It is great to see how linguistic issues can be compared to political views of powerful individuals. Examples given are hilarious and relevant to current events. I see your post as a respond to the one by yasawi859 about the Shala-Kazakh language (https://nuwritersguild.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/shala-kazakh-and-other-obstacles-for-the-pure-kazakh/), so we have a conversation taking place here.
    What I see the most important in your post is that any issues concerning languages (and not only languages, basically) go through several stages of development from strong rejection to acceptance in the society. I have read this sociological theory once but, unfortunately, cannot provide you with details. If you are aware of it and have based some of your arguments on it, I would be glad to read more about this theory.

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    1. @mariaminu, thanks for you remarks! I did not really intend to engage in the conversation on Shala-Kazakh, as I realise that this is a sensitive issue for many people, and for a language that is still recovering from years of suppression, that is still revitilising, as we say, code-mixing may seem detrimental. But, if I may, I’d like to throw in some examples from Russian (which of course is not in any danger of being in shift). If you were a language purist, you would never feel ДИСКОМФОРТ, only НЕУДОБСТВО; you would avoid engaging in ДИСКУССИЯ, and only partake in ОБСУЖДЕНИЕ; instead of ДЕТАЛЬНЫЙ АНАЛИЗ, you would be careful to perform ОСНОВАТЕЛЬНЫЙ РАЗБОР. But would you make Russian better for it or express yourself more effectively? I don’t think so. If you ask me, I’ll say: keep them coming, those foreign words!

      As for the theory you mentioned, it sounds a bit like Hegelian Dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis… (BTW, all these Latin words have been welcome guests in Russian for centuries)

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  3. First, I just noticed your profile picture. Is there a famous feline cosmonaut from the USSR, or is it just an homage to my Belka?

    Second, keep up the good work (5/5). I hope more voices will jump on this discussion, because as Maria pointed out, many of these ideas of linguistic values are tied to the political, historic, cultural, and even philosophical ones.

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