November 19, 2010 / 10:14 AM / 9 years ago

Exhibition: English is totally awesome, my crumpet

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

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.

But the panel never materialized, and neither did plans to change or simplify the language’s spelling, like the Spelling Society’s treatise ‘Advaantajez ov a rashonal speling.’ To this day, there is no official regulation of the English language.

“People are sometimes frightened by the deterioration of language,” Robinson said. “But slang is not a recent thing. It’s always been there.

“Everywhere it’s gone across the globe, English has absorbed words from different languages and dialects.”

Listening stations in the exhibit bring the language to life, allowing visitors to hear modern variations in vocabulary and pronunciation.

A popular recording shares different ways to say attractive, ranging from “bonny” and “fit”, to “crumpet” and “tasty geezer”. There is even a version of an English speaker from India’s Punjab region, who would call a pretty gal “sohni”.

The final room asks visitors to contribute to the library’s archive of 21st century English by reading aloud a passage from the children’s book “Mr. Tickle”, from the Mr. Men series by Roger Hargreaves.

Who knows what history will think of that.

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices is at the British Library from November 12 to April 3, 2011.

Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; editing by Paul Casciato

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