Fain would I speak that thou mayst comprehend

Last year, I translated a monograph on the artistic merits of a type of Oriental carpet for a pedantic German professor. On reading the first draft, he informed me that he did not want to see the words “create”, “creation”, “creative” or any derivation thereof in his text.

Slightly taken aback – since the tenor of his monograph was essentially the originality of the artistic objects in question – I inquired the reason for his aversion to these terms and was informed that they had been so debased by modern usage that they had become meaningless. Reluctantly, because in most cases these were the best terms to express his meaning and that is what translation is about, I was ultimately forced to acquiesce. Also, the customer is king and although I will argue a point I feel strongly about, I enjoyed the challenge of finding satisfactory alternatives.

However, this set me thinking once again about how many words have suffered the same fate during the course of my lifetime. We all know about changes in meaning since the time of Shakespeare or the publication of the King James Version of the Bible and how easy it is to misunderstand these – but you don’t need to go back hundreds of years. Just watch an old film from the nineteen-forties and look at what has happened to English since WWII.

Our language has altered even more drastically in the last fifteen years or so, with the universal advent of computers and mobile phones, social networking sites and txt msging, while TV continues to influence us – or should I say ‘impact us’, since any noun can apparently now be verbed – with catch-phrases and American or Australian elements of speech such as hrt. No, not hormone replacement therapy affecting the vocal chords, but the high-rise terminal – and once again, no, not a tower block but the tendency to raise the voice at the end of a sentence to make a statement sound like a question.

Living abroad, I am an avid collector of neologisms and new turns of phrase as I strive to remain in the mainstream of communication. Actively practising them, however, is a different matter – or ballgame. It was on my return to England towards the end of 1968 after five years in Germany that I was first so forcibly struck by the tremendous increase in new coinages and alterations in meaning. I had missed the swinging sixties, but their effect on the English language hit me like a sledge-hammer. Was this my native land, my native tongue? Well, I was still quite young and adaptable, so a year later I was totally assimilated and speaking the lingo as if I’d never been away.

And then in 1973 we moved to Geneva, and I was plunged into the sea of ex-pat Brits who had been in Switzerland for decades, still used expressions like “wizard!” and “what-ho!” and referred to an eligible single man as a “gay bachelor” with no sexual connotations whatsoever. I felt as if I’d regressed in time and ended up in the Raj. Yes, invitations were to afternoon tea rather than tiffin, but otherwise linguistically it was all very Kiplingesque.

I continue to hope that visiting the UK regularly and having a wide circle of native English-speaking friends will keep me in the loop where the adult idiom is concerned. However, I do have to ask myself how well I am succeeding. My professor’s comments reminded me of another recent experience. After a brief visit to London last year, my two Swiss granddaughters – whom I have always considered to be more or less bilingual – complained that the English they had learnt from their mother and me stamped them as fossils, and that their contemporaries in the UK had been amused by their speech. It isn’t just Estuary English and the ubiquitous glottal stop. There is simply no way that a young person can learn to speak the English of the young without total immersion in that society and culture.

I couldn’t begin to imitate Vicky Pollard or Catherine Tate’s teenagers, but I know that the famous question Saga magazine always asks about “Have you used a contemporary slang expression like ‘cool’ or ‘dude’?” is rubbish, because only older people who are trying to be ‘hip’ and not ‘square’ would use ‘cool’ and ‘dude’, and if younger people used these terms they would be doing so ironically. I am also familiar with the pitying sneer accompanied by a quick eye-roll that teenagers all over the world, embarrassed by mutton attempting to be lamb, reserve for the old and decrepit (i.e. over 30’s).

Consequently, there’s little I or my daughter can do to help our younger generation update their English – they will have to do it themselves with the aid of their same-generation English cousins. Nevertheless, maybe I can still make myself useful when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare!

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5 thoughts on “Fain would I speak that thou mayst comprehend

  1. “Inerpreting Shakespeare” – I like that. I felt the same way when I returned to Germany last year. Albeit I was only there for 7 days. Not long enough to pick up the changes, but long enough to feel like a total outsider. I knew I was in trouble when a shopkeeper commented how well I spoke German!

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