#amwriting: Our shifting language

English is the third most widely spoken native language in the world (behind Mandarin Chinese and Spanish). It is the first language of four countries and is spoken by more than 400 million people, with five major dialects and distinct accents:

  • Countries where English is spoken natively by the majority of the populationBritish English
  • North American English
  • Australian English
  • New Zealand English
  • South African English

An American girl from a rural corner of the US can understand a girl from New Zealand fairly well, and after they adjust to the differences in their accents, they can chat freely.

Many other countries use English as their official language. According to Google, fifteen more countries have their own native language, but use English as an “Official Language and the Language of Instruction in Higher Education”:

Anguilla Ireland, Northern Singapore
Antigua and Barbuda Ireland, Republic of Solomon Islands
Australia Jamaica South Africa
Bahamas Kenya Swaziland
Barbados Lesotho Tanzania


According to Wikipedia, the Fount of All Knowledge: “Estimates that include second language speakers vary greatly, from 470 million to more than 1 billion. David Crystal calculates that non-native speakers as of 2003 outnumbered native speakers by a ratio of 3 to 1. When combining native and non-native speakers, English is the most widely spoken language worldwide.

All English speaking people can communicate through writing, and while they might not be able to understand each other well in person, they can easily communicate via the written word.

In medieval times, the lingua franca was Latin. Lingua Franca means a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different. An historical example of how people can communicate using a lingua franca in writing and still be unable to understand each other when speaking it: Richard the Lionhearted spoke langue d’oïl, a French dialect, and lenga d’òc, a Romance language, and his wife, Berengaria of Navarre, spoke Navarro-Aragonese, a Spanish dialect.

During the political negotiations arranging their marriage, Richard and Berengaria communicated via letters composed and written in Latin, as neither one spoke the other’s native language. However, when they met, even though they were both speaking Latin, their accents made it nearly impossible for them to understand each other until they became used to the other’s pronunciations.

That bit of historical trivia brings us back to the modern day lingua franca: English. With so many people speaking it, new usages come into play and spread through the speaking community, and the language shifts. Sometimes it shifts more rapidly than I can keep up with.

This blending and shifting of the common usage demonstrate what happened to Latin. Latin is frequently referred to as a dead language, but it is not. Latin is actively spoken in the modern Romance languages. (Romance referring to Roman, not love.)

The five most widely spoken Romance languages by number of native speakers are:

  • Spanish (410 million)
  • Portuguese (216 million)
  • French (75 million)
  • Italian (60 million)
  • Romanian (25 million)

Latin also appears in and strongly influences our Germanic, Frisian-based English, through our Norman ancestry—after all, our great Norman kings and queens spoke Medieval French: langues d’oïl, which itself was a mingling of Gallic and Roman based languages.

The Normans came to Britain speaking French, and their children remained, speaking a blend of Anglo-Saxon-French: Old English.

270px-Rosetta_StoneAll spoken language evolves. Only languages whose sole known records are actually engraved in stone, such as Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Ancient Sumerian, are unchanging.

English is continually evolving in more than just the obvious way of snappy catch-phrases and new technology. It is evolving in its formal usage

Consider the word whilst. As conjunctions go, the words whilst and while are technically interchangeable in meaning, but whilst has become less common in standard American English. If whilst appears in an American genre fiction book, it’s an eye-stopper, awkward and old-fashioned, more suited to classical poems and literary prose. Therefore, an American author may not use whilst, but a British author might.

Yet, despite its having fallen out of fashion in the US, we all understand the word whilst when we see it written and when we hear it.

At some point, everything we write in our modern language will be as unintelligible to those who speak the future modern English as Geoffrey Chaucer’s work is to the contemporary eye and ear today:

chaucer modern translate wife of bath meme

It is clear that the eye of the translator and his perception can greatly influence the modern translation of the work. I disagree with the use of the word “Ruled” in the second line, as the intent of “Were” in this case is clearly “was.” In the common usage of the day, “were” was interchangeable with “was.” Had I been in the same program as the above translator, we would have argued over this point.

I’d have translated it as:

Experience, though no authority,

Was in this world  enough for me

To speak of the woe that is marriage.

For, Lordings, since I was twelve years of age,

Thanks be to God eternally alive!

Husbands at the church door, I have had five.

We can only see the works of our great literary giants through the lens of time, filtered through our own wishes and interpretations. And this is how our greatest works, those which do survive into the next millennium, will be seen and interpreted.

Title page of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the hand of his personal scribe Adam Pinkhurst, c. 1400Perhaps our published work will remain a part of the public record as it is today, and be available for students of “classic” literature to interpret. Or perhaps our works will be forgotten, lodged in the dusty vaults of Bowkers, only rarely resurfacing, having been ironically relegated to the dark corners of scholastic research on obscure texts in forgotten languages.

Soon-to-be forgotten or not, I am writing for today, and writing for a contemporary reader. My usages will evolve over the life of my writing career–I ‘ve already seen this evolution at work. That is the process of growth, and it’s clear how my early works differ from my more recent work.

Growth and change drives and forms the new canon of 21st century world literature. We are all a part of its birth, whether we are readers or authors. Readers choose the works they buy and those works are written by people who chose to record the thoughts, values, and misdeeds of their contemporary society in story form.

I am so blessed to be both a reader and an author.


Filed under Literature, writing

3 responses to “#amwriting: Our shifting language

  1. Hi! At College Composition Weekly, I just posted a summary of an important article from the January issue of College English that’s relevant to your points: Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu on “translingualism,” which they consider the actual “norm” of language use, not just in second-language contexts, but in fact in “the normal transactions of daily communicative practice of ordinary people.” The actual article is interesting, but if you’re not a member of the National Council of Teachers of English or a subscriber to CE, you can read my summary here: http://collegecompositionweekly.com/2016/02/28/horner-and-lu-introduction-translingual-work-ce-jan-2016-posted-02282016/. Let me know what you think!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen Swartz

    Yes, I’m in the business! Thanks for the plug!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @Vanderso & @Stephen – I’m an amateur, a word-junkie, obsessed with researching obscure word origins and usages. This gets me into trouble if I become too authentic in my writing–since most people just want to enjoy a good story, not have a language lesson, lol!