Thus runs one of the most famous lines from all of Shakespeare, spoken by Juliet from the balcony as she calls out to find her lover.
But is that really what she is doing?
Juliet continues, “Deny thy father and refuse thy name, or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” She is wishing away the boundary of family which is the impediment to their love around which the story develops. In this context the actual meaning of her famous line makes more sense: “Why are you called Romeo, son of Montague?” In Elizabethan English “wherefore” meant “why.”
I have been listening to Story of Human Language, a wonderful series of lectures from The Teaching Company by Professor John McWhorter which is deconstructing many of my preconceptions of language and educating me about how language and languages arise, evolve, and interact with each other. I am also, as a corollary learning about how we come to identify with and attach to our languages, and about the the polarization and prejudice that flows.
By way of example, consider the English word, “you.” Just a few hundred years ago English had “thee” and “thou” for the second person singular and plural respectively – analogous to “tu” and “vous” in French. Over time these changed to “ye” and “you.” By common usage (and I think here of the pompous over-politeness of the royal “we” as well as the French courtesy of addressing a non-intimate individual as “vous”) both became subsumed into “you,” leaving no way other than context for distinguishing singular from plural.
But this is an important distinction for us to make – particularly with the emergence of written English in which the 30%+ of communication that occurs in tone and the 50%+ that occurs in body language are lost – so popular English tried to fill in. Thus, for example, “you is” and “you was” crept in to distinguish the singular, and I understand they were becoming standard practice before the emergence of early grammar texts used in schools that frowned on them. With the calcification of the language by such devices, the natural changes of common speech to enable communication are regarded as incorrect. Similarly “Billy and me,” and double negatives such as “ain’t none,” which emerge in spoken language for specific reasons, are proscribed; as is, for example, beginning a sentence with “and”; and who, in the real world, says, “whom”? The rules of grammar prevent language changing to fill changing everyday communications needs.
But spoken language – real language – develops anyway, and without realizing it we adopt this usage. The much derided “you all,” “you ‘uns,” and “youz guyz,” have developed in different parts of the US to meet the first need and they offer a distinctive second person plural. This evolution creates a perceived class distinction: “high English,” which is spoken by the educated who have the economic and political power, and which is regarded as the “right” English; and “low English” spoken by the majority in regional dialects, which is dismissed as wrong, ignorant, and lazy.
Semantic and grammatical shift, I now realize, are natural and unavoidable shifts in language. The use of grammar and rules can slow this down, but it cannot stop it – doubly so because there is no such thing as a single monolithic “English language.” I have been in this country for twenty-five years and I am still routinely finding that words I use every day do not always mean to my US friends and family what they meant in the UK. There is a sea of variations of the English language, none of which are far from each other, but which in the aggregate cover a massive distance. I remember as a child watching with great amusement a BBC TV a Scottish hill-farmer being interviewed by a lady who could clearly not understand a word he was saying (and I could not either).
I have recently been introduced to the hip-hop collective Odd Future (more fully OFWGKTA) by my son, and to my ear they are the best I’ve heard since NWA, The Notorious B.I.G. and early JayZ. The rap is smooth and clever, a beautiful texture filled with poly-syllabic rhyme, assonance and alliteration. The grammar and accent render the meaning hard for me to follow, and the vocabulary and cultural stylization add a layer of difficulty, but I can get there and have a glimpse of an extraordinary poetry that for most of my white, middle-aged, middle-class peers is ugly, primitive and debasing. Language will continue to evolve on its own, full of local richness and complexity, and at its margins dialects will become languages, and languages will influence and cross-pollinate each other. Our attempts to hold on to our languages, however well meaning, are doomed to fail. As we correct the grammar of others, preach the “correct” meaning of words, and deride the dialects of those without political power as lesser and lazy, we are creating polarization and prejudice.
I have recently been teaching myself to write left-handed and in going so have referred to standard scripts and realized the extent of the differences between what I learned as a child and how American children learn to write. The picture accompanying this post displays the differences: I don’t have the neatest writing at the best of times, but I can now see why Americans have such a hard time reading my writing: I form many of my letters completely differently!
Returning to the line from Shakespeare with which I opened this post: would it not be a wonderful thing if we could let go of the prejudices of accents and language by which Southerners are characterized as slow, Northerners as brash, and all are defined by how they speak. Would it not be a wonderful thing if we could let go of the Montague and Capulet of language and accept that there is no right or wrong language, no good or bad language, just real language which evolves naturally and allows us to communicate? Would it not be wonderful if we could release our tendency to use our own language to define us and if, in doing so, we could also bring to an end using the language of others to judge them.
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