This morning a friend sent me a picture of autumn leaves in the UK, and a message that ‘Winter is Coming’. To which my reply was to send a picture of the beautiful flowers in the Residence garden here in Santiago, and a message ‘Summer is Icumen In’. That saying, of summer has arrived, comes from a round or song from the 13th century – it was written about 1260 in an Old English dialect. It still features in language today and the song has been used in television programmes in the last decade. It shows the continuity of English, and also the evolving nature of English.
‘English’ and ‘England’ are themselves derived from the Germanic tribe of the Angles who invaded Britain in the 5th century AD, and who came from “Englaland” and their language was called “Englisc”.
Today there are a great range of English dialects in Britain. There are few English-speaking nations with as many varieties of language in such a small geographical area. In the past some dialects have been viewed more positively than others. More a reflection of judgements based on social, rather than linguistic, criteria. Today we live in an increasingly multicultural and homogeneous society. The vocabulary, structure and sounds that define the speech of a particular region, are a source of great pride for many, and an important expression of cultural identity. There are some great videos by the British Council on YouTube about different English regional accents.
Today English continues to be a vibrant, dynamic language. Only last month the latest print edition of the Collins English dictionary was issued. This contains 722,000 words and phrases, and is the largest single volume dictionary in print. It includes 50,000 newly-added words, such as selfie, onesie and photobomb. Twitter, with its limit of 140 characters, is a driver of the form and presentation of language. Some say forcing a better and clearer use of language.
For those of you studying English, you are opening up a whole world of communication, and insights into culture and literature. However some of the 722 000 or more words in the English language contain some challenges. I would like to read to you part of a poem – ‘The Chaos’ by Gerard Nolst Trenité. He was a Dutch writer. This poem first appeared in his textbook, published in 1920 – ‘Drop Your Foreign Accent’. The poem contains about 800 of the worst irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation.
Gerard Nolst Trenité - The Chaos (1922)
Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
Same, examining, but mining,
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
From “desire”: desirable-admirable from “admire”,
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.
Gertrude, German, wind and wind,
Beau, kind, kindred, queue, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
Discount, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,
Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
I am going to stop there, because the whole thing runs to 274 lines!
So I applaud all of you who are dealing with the challenges, but also the joys and richness of the English language.
Last night, there was a great initiative here in Santiago. The British born debating platform Intelligence Squared, together with BBC World and others recorded the first IQ2 debate from South America on the topic of whether the World should legalise drugs. Opinion shifted significantly during the debate, conducted in English, showing the power of language to influence.
Tomorrow night, in London and online, there is an initiative between the English Speaking Union and the British Council on science and the English language, and how to use language to make science more accessible.
Earlier this year, the Economist profiled how there is no real alternative to English as a global business language. The Economist said that adopting English makes it easier to recruit global stars (including board members), reach global markets, assemble global production teams and integrate foreign acquisitions. Some argue that English promotes free thinking because it is free from the status distinctions which characterise some other languages. Business can be conducted faster in English than more complex language formulations. About two-thirds of English-speakers in the world are not first-language speakers of English. In other words English does not belong to England, to Britain, or to the English-speaking countries generally. English is the world’s language. You, along with others, will shape the future of the language, and the future of the world.