Saturday, September 24, 2005

Speak Softly

As anyone who's seen Do You Speak American? can tell you, there are these two camps of langauge scholars: prescriptivists and descriptivists. Prescriptivists try to figure out what English should be, and they see language change--such as the development of neologisms like "jumping the shark," or novel uses or pronunciations of words, like "ask" pronounced the same as "axe" or "I'm like" used as a synonym for "I said"-- as a threat to the sanctity of the mother tongue. Descriptivists focus more on what English is, and they don't judge such change; in fact, they think it rather interesting and like it inasmuch as it keeps them in their jobs.

Needless to say, the descriptivists and prescriptivists have been fighting for years; in the academic English world, they are the Hatfields and McCoys, the Montagues and Capulets, the Sharks and Jets, the Blue Devils and Every Other Basketball Team. Now there is a movement that strives to cut the liguistic Gordian Knot by going the prescriptivists one better: The Original English Movement would return our language permanently to its form a millennium ago, at the time of the writing of Beowulf.

OEM would "fully embrac[e] the notion that English should not change--not now, not in the future, not even in the past." Of course, that means that we'll all be walking around talking like this:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs god cyning.
Sounds reasonable enough to me. Credit for this find goes to Mrs. Good Reverend, the official language scholar of SuedO Apmuza.

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