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- Subject: marvelous tongue
- From: "Morris Krok" essence@xxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Sat, 22 Dec 2001 19:12:17 -0800
I have read a wonderful book on the English
language. You will be well rewarded if you can
purchase a second hand copy.
Our Marvelous Native Tongue
Life and times of the English Language
by Robert Claiborne
THE IMPORTANCE OF SPEAKING ENGLISH
The miracle of our land's speech-so known
And long received, none marvel when 'tis shown!
You English words, I know you:
You are light as a dream, tough as oak,
Precious as gold, as poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak ...
By any standard, English is a remarkable language. It is, to begin with,
the native tongue of some 300,000,000 people - the largest speech community
in the world except for Mandarin Chinese. Even more remarkable is its
geographic spread, in which it is second to none: its speakers range from
Point Barrow, Alaska, to the Falkland Islands near Cape Horn; from the
Shetland Islands north of Scotland to Capetown at the southern tip of
Africa; from Hong Kong to Australia's island state of Tasmania. It is the
predominant language in two of the six inhabited continents (North America
and Australia), and possesses a large block of speakers in a third (Europe)
and a sizable one in a fourth (Africa).
English is also by far the most important "second language" in the world. It
is spoken by tens of millions of educated Europeans and Japanese, is the
most widely studied foreign tongue in both the U.S.S.R. and China, and
serves as an "official" language in more than a dozen other countries whose
populations total more than a billion - a medium of communication in
political and intellectual life for peoples speaking different tongues under
the same flag. Of these, only a small fraction speak it with any fluency -
but even 2 percent of a billion adds up; a recent survey estimated that
those using English as a second language considerably outnumber its native
speakers. English is the lingua franca of scientists, of air pilots and
traffic controllers around the world, of students hitchhiking around Europe,
and of dropouts meditating in India or Nepal. There has never been a world
language, nor is there likely to be, but English is the nearest thing to it
that has ever existed.
Our native tongue is unique in the original sense of that overused word:
the most marvelous communicative instrument yet devised by the human race.
Its vocabulary has drawn on a score of tongues: ancestral Indo-European,
transmuted in sound and sense across eight thousand years; the aboriginal
Baltic speech that I have called Folkish; the Vulgar Latin of Roman traders
and legionaries and the learned Latin of monks and scholars. Listen to its
cadences and you can hear the voices of Danish pirates and their peasant
descendants; of Norman knights and courtiers who came to conquer but were
themselves linguistically conquered; of shrewd Dutch merchants and hardy,
bawdy Dutch sailors; of Italian poets, painters and musicians; of Arab
traders and alchemists; of Spanish commanders, conquistadors and cowboys.
And behind the voices are the faces: copper-hued native Americans, blacks
kidnapped into bondage, liquid-eyed Indian Rajahs and craftsmen, narrow-eyed
Malay pirates and merchants of Cathay. Poets and playwrights have enriched
English with their taffeta phrases, scientists and physicians and their
strange jargons, craftsmen and crooks with their lively lingoes, and common
folk of all sorts with homely metaphor and rude humour.
From century to century the great river of English has flowed on, fed by
all these streams, and itself an inexhaustible source of song and story, of
comedy and tragedy, of histories, sermons, orations and manifestos and of
mere polite - or impolite - conversations. As it enriched the lives of past
generations, so it will continue to enrich the lives of our children and
their children's children - provided we take care that they learn how to
understand and appreciate it.
And provided they remain free to use it.