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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

24 November 2010

Get thee to Evolving English

COMMENTARIES ON CHANGING English often lift up new words for inspection with the cautious help of inverted commas. Today’s ‘kids’ do so enjoy their ‘pop’ records – it dates quickly and looks like an elderly dowager removing something unpleasant from the lawn with a pair of sugar tongs.

Lyndsay John’s recent London Evening Standard piece The secret world of gang slang stands out as better than most.

A broad and ambitious account of the development of our language is now being presented by the British Library at their Evolving English exhibition. It’s free to visit, runs until April the 3rd next year, and shows the British Library combining several of their strong cards to good effect.

The exhibition starts in a respectfully-lit annexe with a chronological account of Old and Middle English. Several of the Library’s most distinguished items are on display, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, its vellum pages bearing shield-walls of strange letters. There’s also a 12th-century dictionary for Anglo-Norman children which gives the English words for animal sounds. Anglo-Norman cows mugist, but English cows louuet and English dogs berket.

Next to the dictionary is the manuscript for Sumer is icumen in, the oldest-surviving example of an English round or counterpoint song. Animal sounds are again part-and-parcel, and you can hear it sung in this YouTube video by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Like English, the exhibition then spreads out onto a larger stage beyond its medieval incubator. Touchscreen displays, archival sounds, books, posters and multimedia projections are all brought into play in the main room. It feels like entering a nightclub for MENSA members.

The main theme here is the variety of forms of English, nationally and beyond. An accent and dialect map of Britain occupies a large vertical touchscreen. Smaller listening posts allow you to scroll through archival recordings of English from around the world in speeches and song. The example of Appalachian Mountains English is Doug Wallin singing the folk ballad Brother Green.

The calypso singer Lord Kitchener represents Caribbean English with Victory Test Match and Frank Zappa’s daughter appears on Valley Girl with the stock phrases of Californian mall-rats which now seem universal. The scholarly notes draw attention to her rising intonation as an example of I-hope-you-like-me uptalk.

Evolving English is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, and be sure to put some money in the collecting box. Like much else, the British Library is having its funding cut in an attempt to offset speculative mistakes made in the City of London and elsewhere.

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