2. What sort of language change?

I recently recalled a conversation, back in the mid sixties, which I had not thought about in years.  It was the beginning of an era, I suppose, with church attendances falling, questions being raised about what was going wrong with the church's worship, and suspicion falling on the church's older use of English.  The conversation was with a ministerial colleague a little older than myself, about our dissatisfaction with our efforts to use present-day English in our worship services.  He said, "It's difficult, Don.  It seems, somehow, as if modern English just isn't beautiful."

 Of course, with a beautiful, older, worship language style still ringing in our ears, it was difficult not to be disappointed with our own lack of skill and meager results.  There we were in a new situation, and to a fair extent we still are.  Certainly, from the point of view of history and society, culture and theology, the situation has been well worked over in the church for a few decades - but, it seems to me, not so well from the point of view of language, which we rather take for granted.  For example, we take it for granted that we have changed from an older language to a modern language; but is that true?  Or is it that the language has changed little, but the way we use the language has changed greatly?  I want to argue for the latter.

       Linguists tell us that we are all experts at our native language: we conquered a system of amazing complexity by the grand age of about six.  Quite brilliant we all are with language - in contrast with, say, mathematics, where some are brilliant, some hopeless, and others somewhere in between.  Language, linguists tell us, is a species-specific skill: we are all experts with our native language, as cats are all expert hunters. However language change is a different matter.  Of course we can see it in retrospect: we can all look at the 1611 Authorized Version (King James), and see that its English is somewhat different from our own.  But in the present, the most significant changes are more or less imperceptible, and future language change is quite unpredictable - not part of our native language skill.  So we need to look a bit more carefully at the business of language change, and, if you can bear with me, I'm going to start with my shamelessly potted account of language change in English.

 Anglo-Saxon, sometimes called Old English, was the language of the invaders who reached Britain after the departure of the Romans.  The first language influence on Anglo-Saxon was the later waves of Viking invaders who came from the same part of the world with a different but related language.  However the most far-reaching changes to the language occurred after the Norman conquest of 1066.  The Normans, who controlled the language of government, law, and church, expected that the English would become speakers of Norman French.  But as linguists remind us, language change is ever unpredictable and uncontrollable - the Normans ended up speaking English.

 However it was English that had changed greatly from its parent Anglo-Saxon.  It had accepted a vast number of Norman French loan words.  Its highly-inflected syntax (grammar), which, like Latin, had a large number of verb and noun endings, changed to a syntax based mainly on word order.  The dialect of London, the  major commercial centre, gradually became mainstream English, though some dialect still remains today.  There was also a great, and quite sudden, shift in the pronunciation of English vowels during the fourteenth century.  This long period of rapid language change lasted to about 1650, the time from which we can now speak of Modern English.  The changes in the Middle English period covered all the main areas of language, sound, vocabulary (the word bank), and syntax (grammar), and the changes ensured that Old English (and indeed much Middle English) would now read virtually as a foreign language for us.  Not the AV though - because it appears quite late in the Middle English period, we can read it fairly easily, despite bits we might see as a little quaint.

 In contrast, the Modern English period, after 1650, has been one of considerable language stability.  Language change continued, of course, as it always does, but at a much slower pace.  This can be checked out by looking at the prose writing of, say, Henry Fielding or Jane Austen; their novels are plainly written in our own language - as are the hymns of their contemporaries Watts and Wesley, though, of course, these are written in verse, not prose.  Incidentally (for writing is secondary language), spelling became standardized during this century as a result of market forces in the expanding publishing industry - it was easier to read.  Prior to this, authors would spell as they pleased, sometimes spelling the same word several different ways in the one document.  And it can look pretty weird and wonderful, but unless it is written before 1650, it is well and truly our spoken language, though it may take a bit of sweat actually to read it.

 All of this, however, does remind us that, as linguists say, primary language is speech; writing is secondary language. I must say that I'm a bit naughty: I used to tell my ESL students that speech is real language, and that writing is unreal or artificial language, a tool for making language permanent - a great invention, of course.  The point therein is an important understanding for worship; for it may start as writing, as hymns, prayers, sermon notes, or service sheet, but it all has to come back to speech, and work as speech - even hymns in their own musical way.  In a prose age like ours the church needs to remember this, and it would probably press us nearer to a poetic style.  For, immersed in our prose culture as we are, we tend to take the conventions of modern, continuous prose for granted, though they are much more artificial than we generally realise.

 The language change of the Modern English period, slow as it was, has been mostly about vocabulary. Many words have been borrowed from many other languages. English has been like that.  But of more concern to us are words which have dropped out of use, for they are often rich in association and full of feeling. These are often called "archaic," but this tends to have become rather a catch-all description, which can mean different things to different people.  I prefer "obsolete" for a word like fain (=gladly), which is now unknown by nearly all English speakers.  On the other hand, for a word like behold, I use the term "unfashionable," for people would still understand it.  And, lo and behold, they use it on occasion.  Some may prefer a term like "obsolescent," but linguists would not, for that is actually to prejudge the outcome, to claim something we cannot yet know, for, as the Normans discovered, language change is always happening, but never predictable - and according to Barbara Strang's History of English, we will not know for about two hundred years.  Meanwhile poets will be happy to use the unfashionable word, if it is the right word for their purpose, and so do I.  After all unfashionable words can hang around for a good while, even come back into general use.  And, since they are often good, old words, rich in history and meaning, it does no harm to try to help that happen.

 There was, back in the sixties and seventies, I suggest, a big misunderstanding in the church about what was happening to its language of worship.  It was usually discussed in terms of language change, from an older English to present-day English, and with the AV in our hands, some feeling of language change was inevitable.  But it has also been exaggerated.  What actually seems to have happened to the English of worship is not so much a change in the language, as a considerable change from an older poetic style to a rather prosaic style.  Or so it has seemed to this more-or-less literary critic as he has preached or sat in pews in Australia over a few decades.  It is the result of living in a prose age.  But the prose age doesn't actually need prosaic hymns.  It needs poetic hymns when it is at worship - and liturgy and Bible.  It requires a language that reaches beyond itself - a new poetic style.  It is a lot to ask in a prose age, but ask for it we must.

Posted on April 25, 2008, 5:30 pm by Don
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