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Osum Shakespeare and the mincemeat of English by S Subrahmanya Sarma

by on April 18, 2012

People tend to express anguish and anger at the way English is used in the Facebook. An attempt is made here to examine whether or not such ‘English’ is acceptable and why it is used in the Facebook.

English is not monolithic or monochromatic in its structure. Its polyphonic nature lends itself to experimentation. Even in the period of Old English (500 AD to 1100 AD), people indulged themselves, coining new words which were then called ‘kennings.’— [Ofer ‘hronrade’ hyran scolde—translated into Modern English as “over ‘whale-road’ (kenning for ‘sea’) hear should…” (Beowulf)]

In India, the educated elite is mostly familiar with only one form of English that is ‘Standard English’ and is not familiar with other dialects, for example cockney which writers like Shaw and Eliot explored. We are not familiar with the dialectal variations of English, their pronunciation or syntax. For example, an Australian’s answer “I came here to die” to a question “when he arrived in India” makes one wonder why he came all the way from Australia to India to die.

So any deviation from ‘Standard English’ makes us feel that English is being “butchered” though such variations and deviations are viewed as inevitable processes.

Even in the Old English period there were four main dialectal forms, Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish and West Saxon, of which West Saxon slowly acquired supremacy thanks to the great King Alfred. During the Middle English period (1100 AD to 1500 AD), the dialects were Kentish, Southern, Northern, East Midland and West-Midland, of which the West-Midland seemed to have acquired greater currency. Later, several factors led to the evolution of ‘Standard English,’ which gained global currency though other non-standard dialects such as Cockney, Dorset and Scottish do exist.

However, as Peter Trudgill says, “Standard English is simply one variety of English among many and it is a sub-variety of English.”

One writer who is known for his extensive inventions, deviations, coinages and making contractions is Shakespeare.

His words came largely from a manipulation of the then current language. He coined many words by switching words from one part of speech to another. He turned nouns into verbs, adjectives into verbs, verbs into adjectives, adding prefixes and suffixes. The following is one such example of an adjective being modified as a verb.

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red

(Macbeth 2-ii)

The word “incarnadine” was used as an adjective only in Elizabethan days and Shakespeare for the first time used it as a verb.

David Crystal, talking about The Language of Shakespeare, refers (quoting Shakespeare) to one of his coinages thus:

Can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France—

(Henry V-prologue)

“Why did Shakespeare coin a new word ‘vasty’… To have written ‘the vast fields of France’ would have caused an unwelcome jerkiness. (In) ‘The…fields of France’ we need a two-beat adjective to fill the gap, expressive of great size; ‘vast’ is the obvious choice but it has only one syllable. Large, huge and great are available but they have wrong rhythm… adding an adjective-forming suffix—y is an attractive way of solving the metrical problem.”

Even when English was restricted to Britain during Old English, Middle English and the early stages of Modern English, there were several dialectal variations. However, when English acquired an international dimension, its dialectal variations such as American English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Indian English and South African English present a global stage for people to interact, which fact initiates an inevitable process for a common dialect.

And this inevitable process leads to a uniform approach in the Facebook, maybe omitting the vowels or using shortened forms such as ‘osum’ for ‘awesome’ or introducing numbers for spellings (4 for ‘for’, ‘gr8′ for ‘great’, ‘2morrow’ for ‘tomorrow’ etc) . All this might create a new dialect, (NETLINGLSH?). Only the future can answer.

No doubt, it is clearly deviating from the ‘Standard English’. However a dialect is generally not treated with derision, simply because it is non-standard. This is also a sub-variety of English.

If Shakespeare were to live now, he would perhaps add one more piece of work to his dramatic oeuvre by introducing the English found in the NET.

The writer is Professor of English, Arba Minch University, Ethiopia.

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