Saturday, July 19, 2014

Modern English as a foreign language

While there will always be readers, and there will always be teachers who assign the classics, I wonder how many of today’s kids are still engaging on a regular basis with the archaic constructions that permeate the older classics. I’m speaking, not just of archaic vocabulary (relatively easy to look up), but of archaic syntax. Even if we restrict ourselves, as schools long have tended to, to “Modern English”  (which dates back to the year 1550), there are still a number of syntactic constructions we no longer find in the majority of the texts that today’s young readers encounter. I wrote about some of these earlier, but have collected a few more since.

Some constructions may simply bog readers down and/or baffle them:

1.”of a” plus time expression to express habitual time:

“of a night” (at night); “of an evening” (in the evening); “of a Sunday morning” (Saturday morning)

“..she had her cap on, which he had never seen her in before when he came of an evening.” (Adam Bede)

2. “that” for “so that”:

Let us die that we may live

3. “as” for the relative conjunction “that”:

"those as sleep and think not on their sins." (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

4. “were” for “would be,” with “that” for “if:

“It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” (King James Bible)

5. “but” for “that” plus “wouldn’t”:

“There is no good man in any line but I call to my standard” (My Book House retelling of Robinhood)

6. Inversions: of subject and verb; of object and verb; of adjectives and nouns:

“On her head sang its war-song wild”. (My Book House retelling of Beowulf)

“For them the gracious Duncan have I murther’d” (Macbeth)

7. Nonrestrictive relative clauses shifted away from the definite nouns that modify:

“My lair is empty that was full when this moon was new” (The Jungle Book)


Some instances of archaic syntax may not merely baffle today’s kids, but lead them astray:

8. “Should” for “would”:

“I should have asked you to lunch with me even if you hadn't upset the vase so clumsily.” (Screenplay to Rebecca)

Here, one might think that the speaker is expressing an obligation to have lunch.

“You want to know if I can suggest any motive as to why Mrs. de Winter should have taken her life?” (Screenplay to Rebecca)

Here, one might think that the question at hand is why there was an obligation for Mrs. de Winter to take her life.

9. “had” for “would have”:

“So had life ended for Beowulf.” (My Book House retelling of Beowulf)

One might think Beowolf actually died.

10. “Though” for “even if”:

“Though ye gave me a thousand pounds, yet would I never sign the lease” (My Book House retelling of Beowulf)

One might think that the speaker actually did receive a thousand pounds.

As I noted earlier, even now things are a-changin’: “before”, “beside,” and “about” are losing their spatial meanings (“in front of,” “next to,” “around”), making sentences like “She stood before the crowd of people about the grounds beside the lake” not as readily understood as they once were. Also falling out of favor are the locative meanings of "within" and "without," upstaged by counterparts in which the locative morpheme comes first, rather than last: "inside," "outside."

Whether these archaisms merely confuse contemporary readers, or actually lead them astray, cumulatively, they make pre-20th century classics (e.g., Shakespeare, Dickens, Dumas, and James) increasingly inaccessible.

No wonder so many English classes now accompany the written classics with the growing number of movie versions that Hollywood is so eagerly churning out. Although, as we see from the screenplay for Rebecca (1940), it's hard to completely escape archaisms unless one sticks to relatively recent movies. Which I'm guessing is pretty much what today's K12 English teachers are doing.

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