Friday, May 14, 2010

Declaring Language Independence

Spero News, May 13, 2010
By Richard W. Bailey
(for URL see below)

In the new Oxford History of English Lexicography, we find the claim:
"Languages declare their independence by creating dictionaries." We
are more used to the idea that independence is proclaimed by seizing
the presidential palace or the armory, but this idea has something to
commend it.

During the nineteenth century, countries again and again used language
as a vehicle for expressing national identity. In Norway, where Danish
had been the usual written language, Ivor Aanson promoted Nynorsk and
Alf Torp published the Nynorsk etymologisk Ordbok in 1919. In
Czechoslovakia, linguistic independence came through Czech-German
dictionaries. (The Austrian empire ruled a multilingual set of states
through German.) But the greatest of these revolutions is the creation
of Modern Hebrew from its beginnings as a language of religion (and
little else) to a full-scale language used for all purposes; its most
copious dictionary is "Hebrew Old and New" by Eli'ezer Ben-Yehuda.

Our own linguistic independence was proclaimed by Noah Webster in 1783
just as the Treaty of Paris was shucking off the shackles of monarchy.
An ardent patriot, Webster thought that Europe was mired in folly,
corruption, and tyranny. "For America in her infancy to adopt the
present maxims of the old world, would be to stamp the wrinkles of
decrepit age upon the bloom of youth and to plant the seeds of decay
in a vigourous constitution."

Webster's compatriots did not instantly embrace his ideas. Many
thought that English was a single language and that few American
innovations were anything other than blunders and bad usage.
Nonetheless, Webster pressed doggedly ahead. In 1806 he published the
Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and thanks to e-texts
you can see all the words employing "American" in their definitions.
There's no disputing that butternut and moose are American words and
merit being in the dictionary.

In 1828, he published his "American Dictionary of the English
Language" and founded a dynasty of Webster dictionaries that comes
down to this day.

Other nations within the pale of English speakers declared linguistic
independence too. Among the first to do so was John Jamieson who
believed that Scots English was the legitimate descendant of Old
English and demonstrated his argument in his dictionary of 1808.
Sassenachs and other southerners spoke only a dialect debased by
French and other foreign tongues. In the 1960s, there appeared the
"Dictionary of Jamaican English" and the "Dictionary of Canadianisms,"
both thoroughly scholarly accounts of a distinctive variety of
English. And more recently wonderful dictionaries have been published
for New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and many other places with
long linguistic histories.
The most recent declaration of linguistic independence comes from Sri
Lanka with Michael Meyler's Dictionary of Sri Lankan English (2007).
Poor Meyler has suffered the same sort of abuse that was heaped on
Webster. The entries were "old colonial slang" and mistakes, according
to one newspaper reviewer. But just as butternut and moose were good
American words, so too egg hopper and rambutan are beloved to Sri

We welcome Sri Lanka to the federation of world English.

Richard W. Bailey is Professor Emeritus of English Language and
Literature at the University of Michigan. His latest publication
(co-edited with Colette Moore and Marilyn Miller) is an edition of a
chronicle of daily life in London written by a merchant in the middle
of the sixteenth century. This electronic book incorporates images of
the manuscript, a transcript of the writing it contains, and a
modernization of the text for easy reading. Thanks to the University
of Michigan Library and the University Press, the work is freely
available to all: