"People in the past lived free of concepts from our own time, just as we walk around in blithe ignorance of ideas that will seem self-evident to our grandchildren. Those ideas will rely on words that have not yet been born." Mark Abley
Mark Twain invented Huckleberry Finn in the 1800s. Yet despite his stage of life, Huck cannot be described as a teenager, since the concept of teenhood was still roughly a century in the future.
Oscar Wilde was not gay. Using gay to mean homosexual began only in the 1960s. To label Wilde as gay, says Abley, would "pluck him out of the 19th century" he inhabited. Still, when we read the word gay as used before its radical shift in meaning, we cannot un-know its contemporary sense.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats used gay in its earlier meaning when he wrote Lapis Lazuli in 1936. First readers of Yeats also had "no telephones, no radios, no TV sets, no computers." But, Abley points out, they had time. They "didn't gobble sentences like mouthfuls of fast food," and "expected, even welcomed, ornately sculpted sentences."
This idea reminded me of a book I read on a visit to Eire. Conor Cruise O'Brien's Ireland, a collection of works by himself and others, was fascinating. Published only half a century ago, it seemed extremely long-winded and discursive. A veteran reader of such texts, I enjoy the style.
I'm also certain that if a contemporary editor decided to republish, the book would be pared down. This would undoubtedly involve removing extra words (like undoubtedly) in order to pick up the pace. Sentences would be more concise. Abley: "The sentences we fashion today tend to be a lot shorter than in previous centuries." Of course, our vocabulary is changing rapidly too.
English is not a special case; the rapid pace of linguistic change is widespread. In fact, says Abley, "The world's most prominent languages are all in a state of flux."
Part of that flux happens as languages come into closer contact and begin to overlap. One amazing story involves a serious communication gap between Tokyo police and teens. Teen slang is full of English-based expressions re-absorbed into Japanese, creating a lingo incomprehensible to adults (and English speakers too). The cops approached the problem in a novel way: they compiled a list of slang terms to help them translate what the kids were saying.
Across the formality spectrum, huge gaps are opening between the classical language learned by educated people and the language of the streets. Shakespeare once wrote in the argot of common people, but he too has "been left behind by the language he did so much to shape."
Among Spanish speakers, the respected words of Cervantes, composed in classical Spanish, are now virtually incomprehensible to anyone outside an educated elite.
In Arabic, an enormous gulf of understanding yawns between those who understand that revered classic, the original Koran, and those who speak the Arabic that has evolved 1300 years later. Today the language used by the uneducated and unemployed underclass even uses different sentence order: the subject did not come first in the original tongue.
Overall, Mark Abley's book (Vintage 2008) is a thought-provoking and fascinating read. One final tidbit: an expert predicts that in the next few years, over a third of the world's people will be trying to master English as a second language. Astonishing, isn't it?