Exhibition: English is totally awesome, my crumpet

Fri Nov 19, 2010 8:40am EST
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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - "I wrote 2 U B4" pens a poet to his lady love, but don't be deceived -- the short message is not a snippet from an iPhone text, but a 19th century form of word play.

The abbreviated line -- called emblematic poetry -- is just one example of the transformations of the English language, as presented in the British Library's 'Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices,' the largest such exhibit in the world.

The language now spoken by a third of the world's population came to Britain 1,600 years ago with marauding Germanic tribes, and has been shaped over the centuries by everyone from Viking invaders to French royalty and Caribbean immigrants.

"English has always been diverse and different, and it's evolved, right from the beginning," said Jonnie Robinson, a curator and specialist in sociolinguistics.

"One of the things we wanted to celebrate was creative uses of English."

English developed through the literary and religious canon, with Chaucer and Shakespeare pioneering words like "hunchback" and "eyeball".

But it's also been changed by hobo slang and pop music: Frank Zappa's 1982 hit "Valley Girl" introduced a world audience to the vocabulary of teenagers in California -- Valspeak -- with phrases such as "I'm like freaking out, totally" and the ubiquitous "oh my God."

The word "booze" was published in a slang dictionary in 1673, while the verb "to fart" was first recorded in a musical chorus from the 13th century, as "farteth."

Creative usage inevitably inspired heated criticism. In 1712, the satirist Jonathan Swift wrote a letter to Parliament, railing about the chaos of the English language and urging the formation of an expert panel to determine proper usage.   Continued...

<p>The Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben are seen before the State Opening of Parliament in London, November 6, 2007. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico</p>