Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Queen's English

I have a friend in Australia who often decries the state of the Queen’s English. Americans in particular, he claims, have mongrelized it to heart-breaking proportions. Yes, that’s what tends to happen when cultures collide and America has been a thick stew of colliding cultures for centuries.
My friend’s attitude makes me laugh. The Queen’s English? What Queen is he referring to here and for that matter, what of the King? Does each monarch get to choose the grammatical rules?
There’s this romantic notion about this nebulous thing known as “The King’s/Queen’s English.” English has been one of the most mongrelized languages on the planet long before it made its way across the ocean to America. Even in its “birth” place or perhaps more accurately, its first place of evolution, there is a variety of ways it’s spoken. A trip from top to bottom of England could require the Universal Translator to sort out the varying accents and syntax.
That’s not to say that Americans haven’t played fast and loose with the language. It needs to be remembered that rather than going out to conquer the world, we had the world flocking to our shores bringing with it a whole load of languages. There was bound to be a bit of shuffling.
But I urge all those bemoaning the mangling of the Queen’s English by the American tongue to go have a sit down with Shakespeare and see how happy he would be with their use of the language he used so cleverly. What do you think Chaucer might say if his Canterbury Tales were translated to modern English?
Go a little further and talk to King Richard. Or back further still and have a conversation with a druid who’s watching the Romans putting up strip malls where his sheep used to graze. I’m guessing communication would have to be a combination of hand signs and stick figures drawn on the ground.
English never was nor will it ever be an original language. Kings and Queens might love to think it is and produce rules to try to keep it as such, but the fact is that it’s so stuffed with French, Germanic, Celtic, Roman and other influences that one would be hard pressed to find a word that actually originated in England. Just because the English can turn a phrase with a wildly attractive accent doesn’t mean that the words they’re using, and the way their used, haven’t been borrowed from a variety of other sources. The English just did a better job at staking claim to them.