LONG READ: So Many Words
Photo: Tessa De Jong
Believe it or not, English has a deep lexicon. This means our official word count is somewhere between 171,000 to 580,000 (around 5th highest). There is choice in abundance when it comes to speaking our thoughts, but deep-seated in the heart of all British people lies a fear… A fear that saying how we actually feel may somehow be embarrassing, unfunny, rude.
British culture of recent centuries thrived on indirectness, sarcasm, etiquette and, at all costs, avoiding proverbial elephants in the room. Particularly emotional ones. However, this top-tier veiling of our feelings could be the very reason we have the booming countercultures that we do.
What’s that old therapist’s line…? Nothing really disappears by not dealing with it. It finds other ways out.
How did we get so many words:
Well, English was formed from both Germanic and Latin language bases. So, the simple answer is that we’ve had two families to draw from.
We have also inherited words from other languages like Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Yiddish and more. For example, ‘zero’ is derived from the Arabic ‘sifr’, meaning ‘empty’ or ‘nothing’. It was supposedly Fibonacci who brought the term to Italy in the 1200s after studying in North Africa.
As this absorption of words has continued through trade, conquest, crime and colonialism—Britain has absorbed hundreds of different ways to say the same thing.
Class or farce?
Winners write history, arrogance builds leaders and ruling classes tend to dominate culture. As a result, the ‘proper’ way to speak English, at least up until the end of the 20th century was Received Pronunciation or RP.
Received Pronunciation was coined in 1869 by linguist A J Ellis and according to the British Library, comes from a shared way of pronouncing English from “the public schools and universities of 19th-century Britain” and it was used “to describe this emerging, socially exclusive accent.” So, the ‘proper’ way to speak English was the privileged way.
But what else did the ruling class leave in their wake?
Manners and refinement
Along with a certain way of talking, Britain’s ruling elite from the 17th century saw wise men as rational, not emotional.
The not-so-hot take here is that the wealthy, ruling classes of Britain have left a legacy of suppressing emotions, speaking indirectly about how we feel, and avoiding ourselves at all costs.
So, let’s swing back around to that old therapeutic chestnut… Nothing goes away by not dealing with it.
The need for an outlet, the need for music
Today, Britain’s upper echelons are still made up of boarding-school-fiddled, port-drinking, beer-sinking, wine-clinking-white-men. They’re still there and they still hold positions of power. But, below them are an untameable mass of people willing to give honest expression a shot. It seems that for Brits – music is a favoured weapon of choice.
One astounding beauty of music as an art form is that you just need to play it for it to be heard and understood. No schooling, no dictionary, no training. Just ears.
As put by the music specialist, James Rhodes, “It is the only language in which we are all fluent.” Or that: “Music is a world within itself, it is a language we all understand.” – Stevie Wonder.
When we look at dictatorships, authoritarian states and all of those ugly ways of ruling over people – they know this and fear it. Art tends to let the truth out. Hence, the first things to be censored in such places are free speech and art (literature, plays, songs, films etc..)
Art from underprivileged groups has never had the same platform or public access. But within the UK, so much contemporary music has come from exactly these less privileged groups. For electronic music, this is starkly the case with genres like jungle, garage, dub & grime that were saying what needed to be said, regardless.
There is hope
When day-to-day life discourages statements of emotional honesty, these feelings need another outlet. For Brits, that means incessant daily humour, frustrated countercultures, but also—music that has found a global following.
Not much makes me proud to be British these days, but if there is any hope to cling to, it is our ability to express ourselves through music and culture, even if our best response to how we’re doing is just ‘fine.’
by Felix Lindsell
Editor: Alex H Honey
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