Writer in Residence

English Grows Up

By Pamela Mordecai

It appears English is about to undergo some kind of rite on June 10 at 5:22 a.m. ET. An unsupported headline on the front page of today’s GLOBE AND MAIL (you have to go inside for the article) says that at that time it will pass the million-word mark.

It is not clear, however, what kind of rite this is, in relation to English’s development. Is it a puberty rite, marking English's moving into adolescence? Can you see him hitching up his drooping jeans, underwear peeking out, Bluetooth in his ear, offloading a whoosh of frothy mouth-water onto the sidewalk?

Can you hear his mother?

“That’s disgusting, English! How often have I told you not to spit?”

“Ma, I’m tired of telling you I can’t be myself if I don’t spit! All those fricatives and sibilants and stuff…”

Is it a rite attached to English growing up, taking a girl out on a real date?

Can you hear his parents?

“English, no bad language, now! You don’t want French to be telling her parents that you don’t know how to speak to nice girls!”

“Rents, are you kidding? That girl knows more expletives… Okay. You didn’t hear me say that! Guys, come to think of it, you’re forgetting what Grandma said. All words are good words! There’s no such thing as a bad word. Remember? It’s the meanings people give them that are bad – not the words!”

Or is it whatever rite accompanies passing into middle age, that age the Bard described as “Full of wise saws and modern instances”?

We’ll hope it’s not that time of English’s life! He’d very likely be caught up in the recession, having lost his job and his pension. He’d be collecting EI, which would be unfortunate, a bit of regression, really, since he appears to have lost that dipthong a while back. Oh, never mind. That wasn’t him. It was his Grandma’s Grandma’s Grandma…

Because of course, English, our English, is a hip descendant of the Mother Tongue, the one from England, the one authorities say was most closely related to West Frisian when it began, which wasn’t English, really, but Dutch. And you know how those marriage arrangements went in those long ago language times – Dutch one minute, Latin the next, and almost entirely French not so very long after! A lot of mixing up went on. Yes sah! Talk about loose tongues!

But back to the G&M’s unsupported headline. Once you go inside for the story, you learn that IS NOT SO IT REALLY GO AT ALL. You find out useful stuff from the article, and from Russell Smith’s “Debunking the hype” piece, but what you really discover is that you’ve been had by the headline. Nobody knows how many English words there are, let alone where the lexicon is in relation to that million-word mark!

How come? Maybe we’ll see if and when we talk some more about English and his relatives…

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.