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Mon 28 September 2020
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Otto English takes us on a journey through the history of the English language, the exceptionalism of Empire and the furious and curious of Twitter.

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This is the story of a tweet.

On Tuesday morning, as I was procrastinating in front of my computer, I came across a YouGov poll about the British public’s attitude to foreign languages. According to the findings, a quarter of the population felt “bothered” when they heard other lingos in public, but the figure rose to 41% among Leave voters.

The British and, I include myself in this, are embarrassingly bad at learning other tongues. We aren’t entirely to blame. Our language has gone global and when I try my faltering French nowadays I find that younger speakers in particular fire back a response in English. Good fortune has made many of us lazy – or entitled. 

Travel across Europe and you’ll find British tourists loudly ordering things in English in bars from Istanbul to Riga and expecting the waiters to understand.

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Given that, the cognitive dissonance inherent in some Brits objecting to others speaking their own language here resonated. So I fired off a tweet saying that I felt “sorry” for leavers who felt that way and, yes, I was being a mite sarcastic. Having done so, I thought about English itself and its many influences and added a second comment saying:

“I wonder what percentage of British people realise that the English they speak is a glorious melange of other languages. Mostly French, Germanic and Latin it reflects the waves of migration here since the time of Christ. There’s no such thing as ‘English’ really, it’s a soup.”

Then I added a pie chart showing some of those ingredients and made a cup of tea.

I’m a big fan of my mother tongue. I love its peculiarities, its barking mad spelling, glorious vocabulary, poetry and quirks. I taught it as a foreign language for some years and became obsessed with etymology and those bits in the grammar where there’s no real logic but it’s just the way it is because it ‘sounds better’. The English language is one of our islands’ great creations. With its roots in Old German, Missionary Latin, Norse and Norman French, it has never stopped adding new ingredients into the mix. It is dazzlingly cosmopolitan. 

“Kow-tow to your boss” and you’re speaking Mandarin and Dutch. “Get mugged” and you can at least console yourself that you’re being done so in Old Norse and Hindi. “Add some ketchup to your burger” and you’re talking in Latin, Malay and German. “Take back control” and you’re doing so in Scandinavian, Middle Dutch and French.

Of course, nobody goes around thinking like that. We use words and constructions as second nature. Likewise, English is not unique in the way it has been formed. All languages are infused with other roots. But years of teaching made me realise that very few people are aware of this. When as children we learn to put that silent ‘k’ in ‘knife’ nobody ever explains that the reason it is there is because our ancestors pronounced it and our neighbours in Denmark still do (kniv). 

The roots of our language tell us much about our island story and the influences that melded it – which is why I said, within the limitations that Twitter allows, that it is in many ways less a language and more a ‘soup’. I was being metaphorical. 

The trouble is that such nuances and subtleties don’t always travel on social media. The tweet was seized on by a Brexit Party aide, who I know quite well and despite our differences I consider a friend. “Here we go,” he wrote “the latest Remainer meme. There’s no such thing as English. We know and we delight in our self-confidant magpie language.”

I had made no mention of Remain or Leave in the tweet and deliberately so. In my opinion, most people who speak English don’t fully grasp its origins or mass of influences. The tweet I wrote before it might have mentioned Brexit but this was a separate observation. 

What happened next was extraordinary.


British Exceptionalism Runs Deep

The tweet ricocheted around the Brexit end of Twitter and soon a barrage (Farrage?) of very angry people were descending on my feed.

Now, I’ve written an awful lot of Twitter posts over the past decade and been in more social media spats than I dare to remember, but there was something different about this. I had not simply hit a nerve, but steamrollered over one and then gone back over it in reverse.

Over the next few days, literally thousands of people appeared in my mentions, telling me that I was every single swear-word in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular. But I was more than that. I was anti-British, a traitor and denier of the achievements of the people who had built the first hovercraft. Some told me that they knew everything about the English language and that I should shut up and live in Europe if I hated Britain so much. Others declared that their great-great-great uncles had fought in the First World War and that I should be grateful for their sacrifice. 

Many more were simply apoplectic at my daring to share a pie chart. One person had a meltdown that there wasn’t more Greek than French in English, as if it was somehow my fault.

What was going on?

The idea of ‘exceptionalism’ runs deep in the British Isles. The sense that ‘we’ invented everything and that ‘we’ sit at the centre of a world that ‘we’ created persists; the notion that our ways are best, our language is unique, our humour is funnier and that our 20th Century history is above reproach. 

This is an attitude partly forged out of Empire, but one of the great problems for the overlords of the Pax Britannica was that the conceit was translucent to anyone who peered too closely. This re-imagined Roman Empire lacked some of the essential ingredients of the original – most notably in its language.

Latin is highly ordered and for the most part logical. English is not. The Victorians wanted people to believe that they were the heirs to the Roman Empire and yet their language was the linguistic equivalent of a mixed-breed mutt being passed off as a Tibetan Mastiff. So they engaged in a great deceit. They squeezed our ill-fitting grammar into a Latin-shaped box.

Henceforth the ‘rules’ of English and spelling were codified and generations of children were taught them. Given the errant nature of the language, this was like trying to teach the logic of spaghetti to a wildebeest. But, all attempts to simplify spelling or meddle with this now sacred object were batted off by angry buffoons who insisted that there was lucidity, where there was none, or that English spelling was ‘perfectly sensible’ when it was anything but.


Light Not Heat

Language touches the very core of who we are and by daring to lift up the bonnet and point inside I had inadvertently triggered thousands of people. But I had also committed that most cardinal of modern sins: I had suggested that not everyone knows everything and that perhaps some of the things we think we know are wrong.

But, that’s not the whole story. As the angry brigade screamed at my tweet, something else was going on.

Another strand of people – by no means defined by how they had voted in the EU Referendum – began having a long conversation about English and the nature of language. Some expressed regret at the way they had been taught it at school. Others popped up to share insights. A few experts who actually knew what they were talking about appeared. People recommended books. I learned that ‘flannel’ and ‘Dad’ are pre Anglo-Saxon words and that ‘farts’ can be blamed on the Germans.

At one point, we all did an English grammar test. It was all rather enjoyable and reminiscent of another Britain that wasn’t so in hate with itself.

I suppose it would be very easy to reduce all of this to the two types of modern people in the social media microcosm. On the one hand, the reflective and curious and, on the other, the short-tempered and furious. But perhaps, like our language itself, we could all try to stop squeezing each other into boxes and pigeonholes and embrace the soup a bit more instead.    


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