A frivolous post

Ken writes:

Here’s a frivolous thought to take your mind off the recession:

I think we, native speakers, should stop calling the English language ‘English’ and call it ‘regular’ or ‘common’ instead. This would drop a parochialism of one sort for one of another. We would be adopting the practice of indigenous cultures all over the world, such as the Maori, who refer to their language te reo maori (literally ‘normal speech’), in just this way.

Speakers of French or Gaelic would obviously continue to refer to our language as they prefer (even though Anglais seems just as subject to criticism as ‘English’, I’m not proposing any changes to French–––there are some limits to my presumption at least).

A change is needed because our language isn’t just the language of the English anymore. It’s the language of Kiwis and Aussies and Canadians and Americans and Irish and Indians and many more people besides. Of course, once upon a time only the English spoke English (I don’t think even this is strictly true), but what they spoke then isn’t really the same language as what we speak now. When a language changes, it may be appropriate to change the name of the language too.

Besides, the status quo has only history on its side. But democracy is on the side of reform. Why should millions of people have to refer to their language by an out-of-date label whose application is just an accident of history? If James the Sixth and First had thrown his weight around a bit more, we might have become used to referring to the language of Greater Scotia. How is it that when England has been forced to give back all the lands it took, it can keep its title to our language? Is it fair to those young children born many hundreds even thousands of miles from England to learn that they are merely borrowing their language from its true owners, the English, by their grace and favour and for whose cultural beneficence they may be ever in debt?

(Actually, I suppose the most my grounds for complaint would support is the introduction of an alternative term rather than a replacement. It really is still the language of the English (as well). People now use ‘hoover’ as a general word for any brand of vacuum cleaner, even though most vacuum cleaners are not hoovers. Would we want to say they shouldn’t, as my argument seems to suggest?)


Now a pro pos of nothing at all, here are two pictures of gorse flowers (also known as furze or whin). I absolutely love this stuff. I cannot take my eyes away from the yellow flowers when they are out like this. They are my paradigm of yellow. And if you walk past a bank of gorse like this on a hot day, you’ll catch a deliciously sweet fragrance which, to me, has a distinct note of coconut ice about it.

Gorse flowers 1
Gorse flowers 1
Gorse flowers 2
Gorse flowers 2

12 thoughts on “A frivolous post

  1. kenanddot

    Actually, it just occurred to me that German refers to itself in the naive way recommended in the post. Tom Shippey explained in his Kemble lecture at Trinity college last year that ‘Deutsch’ just means something like ‘demotic, vernacular, of the people’ as it would be cognate with Old English ‘Theod’ meaning people ( or something like that anyway but others here will correct me).

  2. Meri

    I think I object to the idea of re-naming the language. It reflects it’s roots.(This is where I need Dot to jump in to explain the roots of the word English..)

    Surely we’d be removing poeple’s heritage if we failed to credit why they are speaking it? Even if it’s a side of their heritage they’d prefer to ignore.

  3. laura

    I’d go along with the name change you propose, if only it would stop people in the US from shouting at immigrants, insisting that they, “talk [sic] English!”
    These are usually the same individuals who not only use ‘hoover’ for instances of vacuuming the floor, but manage to extend (confuse) the meaning of the word by bastardizing the pronunciation of ‘hover’, as in,
    “Look at all those birds hoovering above the lake.”

  4. kenanddot

    @ Meri,
    It’s true that it would being a recognition of the heritage of the language if we stopped calling it English, but it would be a recognition of the present and, maybe, the future of the language, if we started calling it something else. So you’d lose something but you’d gain arguably something more because it’s a more adequate reflection of the diversity of speakers of the language now. I don’t see why history should always trump everything.

  5. How about a completely new and nice name, like “gorse?”
    More seriously: “language” or “tongue.” Good precedents in early versions of the Romance vernaculars (“lengua,” “parler”). Plus some intriguing use of “Lati” both as “Romance vernacular” and “language like Latin, [??] with grammar”. I very much like the idea of everyone calling their own language “new Latin” or some such. Might bring a Latin resurgence. Which is, after all, what we really need.
    But “language” might be less of a hard sell.

  6. kenanddot

    It occurred to me while discussing this with Dot that we could do a lot worse than borrowing a leaf from the French, and naming it after an identifying characteristic. As far as I know, no other language uses ‘yes’ as a simple affirmative term. So ‘the language of yes’, or ‘the yes language’, or simply ‘yessish’ would serve to identify English without insisting on the English speakers’ perspective.

  7. kenanddot


    Sorry, I just found your comment in our spam queue. I have no idea how it got there (and the subsequent one you made on Dot’s warped Catholics post got through alright). But this is strange. It is not the first time you’ve had a comment go missing.

    I don’t know enough about the WordPress blogging software to suggest an explanation.

  8. I’m sure it was the hoovering that did it. See if this gets through…

    I like “yessish”, by the way. Or plain “yes.” Following Dante’s oc/oïl/si distinction, as filched from Ramon Vidal de Besalú’s rather nice “right and natural speech” – very Daily Mail – with some of the mss playing around with a lovely punning link between “language” and “lineage/inheritance/heritage.”

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