Monday, August 19, 2013

Symbolic Value

Quick! Give me a word beginning with “P.”

Sorry, English speakers who said “Pi or “Pie,” or “Pye.”  Congratulations to all the native Greek speakers who offered a word beginning with “Rho.”

The symbols used in any language are not representations of a Platonic ideal, eternal and universal, but arbitrary scratchings limited in time and territory--consider that the English language once had the symbols thorn (Þ), edh (ð), and ash (æ), which are long gone. 

Once having become literate, native speakers of a language are able to navigate their way through the (seemingly complex—at least to outsiders) thickets of strange clusters of symbols. No native English speaker is stymied by “knave” or “knife,” “knight” or “light,” or pronounces “portion” as “port-eye-on.” Similarly, while a non-Swede may be fumbling with the given name of former professional hockey player Kjell Samuelsson, any native speaker of Swedish knows it’s pronounced “Shel.” Each language adapts its set of symbols to fit its own sounds. (OK, non-Polish speakers, try figuring out the pronunciations of Arsenal Football Club’s two Polish goalkeepers, Łukasz Fabiański—not too hard--and Wojciech Szczęsny. Natives of Warsaw will have no problem.) 

So, I say “pooh”—with a “pee”--to those who wish to tamper with English spelling. And that includes my beloved Bernard Shaw, who left a ton of money in his will to encourage the development of a new English alphabet (with at least 40 characters!).* 

It’s too bad that Shaw didn’t pay attention to the dialogue between Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, and the Earl of Warwick, an English noble, in own play Saint Joan, which humorously demonstrates why English spelling must remain independent of changes in pronunciation.

Both men see a threat in Joan to the pillars of their worlds, the Catholic Church for Cauchon and feudalism for Warwick. 

CAUCHON. I see you are no friend to The Church: you are an earl first and last, as I am a churchman first and last. But can we not sink our differences in the face of a common enemy? I see now that what is in your mind is not that this girl has never once mentioned The Church, and thinks only of God and herself, but that she has never once mentioned the peerage, and thinks only of the king and herself.

WARWICK. Quite so. These two ideas of hers are the same idea at bottom. It goes deep, my lord. It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God. I should call it Protestantism if I had to find a name for it.

CAUCHON [looking hard at him] You understand it wonderfully well, my lord. Scratch an Englishman, and find a Protestant.

WARWICK [playing the pink of courtesy] I think you are not entirely void of sympathy with The Maid's secular heresy, my lord. I leave you to find a name for it.

CAUCHON. You mistake me, my lord. I have no sympathy with her political presumptions. But as a priest I have gained a knowledge of the minds of the common people; and there you will find yet another most dangerous idea. I can express it only by such phrases as France for the French, England for the English, Italy for the Italians, Spain for the Spanish, and so forth. It is sometimes so narrow and bitter in country folk that it surprises me that this country girl can rise above the idea of her village for its villagers. But she can. She does. When she threatens to drive the English from the soil of France she is undoubtedly thinking of the whole extent of country in which French is spoken. To her the French-speaking people are what the Holy Scriptures describe as a nation. Call this side of her heresy Nationalism if you will: I can find you no better name for it. 

Bad playwrights make their characters solemnly aware of their place in history (in a way that no real person would be) or crystal-ball gazers with a better track record than Nostradamus. Shaw, a great playwright, comically has his clergyman and his nobleman alert to the historical moment, but (as we, six centuries later, know) wrong as to the language. How so? By having his characters pronounce the words “Protestantism” and “Protestant” as “Proh-testantism” and “Proh-testant” (based on the pronunciation of their root word, “protest”) and the word “Nationalism” pronounced “Nay-tionalism” (based on its root word, “nation”).**

If spelling reformers ever got their grubby hands on the language to put spelling in line with  pronunciation,*** then words would get separated from their roots and their siblings. For example, one could not then tell at a glance that “nation” and “national” are at root the same.

Historically, it has been the meddlers and “correctors” who have wreaked horrors on English spelling by, for example, attempting to reconcile English spelling with false Latin or French etymologies (like the busybodies who stuck the “b” in “debt” and “doubt” and the “s” in “island”).

In conclusion, it is worth considering an anecdote I once read (I wish today I knew the source): 
A visitor to a library (or museum or similar venue) in London asks a somewhat-elderly guard on duty for directions.
 “You want Section I,” replies the guard. “’I’ as in ‘epple.’”  
*Eventually, a version of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion was published in the new alphabet. It was hardly a bestseller.

**While both “protest” and “nation” were in the English vocabulary at the time of Joan of Arc (early 15th Century), “national” and “Protestant” were products of the 16th,”Protestantism” of the 17th, and “nationalism” of the 19th—according to the OED.

***And whose pronunciation would have the right to be the foundation of new English spelling? Some plummy-voiced BBCers, maybe? Who died and left them God?