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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Rhyming slang - who doesn't get it?

Advertisers, those arbiters of taste and discernment in Berkeley Square or Madison Avenue, simply don't understand cockney rhyming slang. While telling us which soap powder washes whitest and which juices we'll love because it doesn't have 'bits' in, they make their ignorance too obvious to ignore.
The way rhyming slang works is to use an article that comes as part of a pair or a set phrase - plates of meat, for example, then just say 'plates'. The word you mean will rhyme with the missing part. Plates of meat = feet.
China plate = mate, apples and pears = stairs, Adam and Eve = believe.
It's much easier to understand than it is to explain.
So how come all of these overpaid masters of the language use 'you're having a giraffe'? on an advert for soap powder? If giraffe were used in rhyming slang it would be something like 'giraffe's neck' for 'peck'. Londoners everywhere would be saying 'give me a giraffe on the cheek'. Sorry, chaps, but you just don't get it, do you? Perhaps we should bring back Minder and Only Fools and Horses to teach you young whippersnappers a thing or two?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Stolen words...

It has been said that the English language has borrowed from some 350 other languages. If in doubt, think of your local high street with all of its multi-cultural restaurants, bars and cafes and ask yourself where words like chilli, chutney, couscous, sushi and risotto come from. Even the humble ketchup has exotic origins, coming as it does, from China. But food is just one example of our cosmopolitan language.
Originally, the Celts inhabited Britain but were forced to flee to its distant corners by the arrival of the Romans. They spoke a sort of vernacular, more colloquial, version of Latin than the one we learnt at school called Vulgar Latin. Because many of them stayed behind and married into the new invading tribes - the Anglo-Saxons - we were left with a blend of Celtic, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, which was derived from Old German.
As if this was not enough of a linguistic cocktail, the Normans arrived in 1066 and, well the rest is history. English is based on a rare concoction of old Norman French, Old German, Latin and a tiny smattering of Celtic.
Latin was revived in Britain when Saint Augustine converted many of the islanders to Christianity, because if they wanted to read the Christian texts, they had to understand Latin.
Today, we can see that in many situations, we have a choice of words available to us. If we wish to evoke something simple and homely, we tend to use the Anglo-Saxon word, if we need a little more formality we are more likely to choose the word of French origin, and if we wish to sound scientific, technological or official, we will probably opt for a Latin-based word.
Ask, for example, is an Anglo-Saxon word, demand a French one, and interrogate a Latin one.
You get my drift...
While it has been estimated that we have almost a million words available to us in the English language today, while the Russians have 150,000 and the French 180,000, when Shakespeare was alive, there were only 21,500 words at his disposal. No wonder he had to create his own.
More about that anon!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Our multinational language

Here I am blithely talking about the English language, when actually our language has borrowed ( or should I say hi-jacked, stolen, ransacked, robbed and kidnapped) from over 300 other languages. Have a think about it. Most of our words for food, for music, for some animals, plants and types of landscape have come into English through long-term borrowing.

Everyday English is born

No-one was more surprised and delighted than me when the editors at Michael O'Mara Books asked me to write a book entitled Everyday English. I thought I knew a bit about the language, about writing and speaking and how to inspire people to enjoy their language. As it turned out, the subject was even more vast, more interesting, more exciting and more complicated than I had realized and I had a very short time in which to make sense of it all.
Luckily for me, and for everyone interested in the subject, there are some wonderful, inspiring books on the shelves; unluckily for me, they all have different names for similar things - not just across the Atlantic, but from author to author. There was so much material to discover and so much of it said different things!

Thanks to some wonderful editing, the addition of some great illustrations and a very talented designer, it looks as if we are ready to hit the shops in May.

What I would like to do with this blog is to share some of the strange and fascinating aspects of the English language and to demonstrate that grammar does not have to be a grind.
Over time, this blog may take us into new regions, some of them unconnected with language, but for the time being, watch this space and let's enjoy the richest, most extraordinary gift that we, as English speakers, have been blessed with: the English language.