For millennia Chinese calligraphers had jealously guarded the pictographs and ideographs that represent the Chinese language it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the thought was expressed to make it easier, it was a relatively swift transition. It was first muted by the Civil Service at the time of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi (Cixi) and it would surface again a number of times culminating with the simplification of the Chinese written language in the 1950s-1960’s.
Another pictographic language was the Hieroglyphics of the Egyptian language which could have disappeared completely had it not been for the Napoleonic wars and the discovery by Napoleon’s Troops in Egypt of the Rosetta Stone which was then captured by the British and by the treaty of Alexandria in 1801 became spoils of war. Its importance was recognized almost immediately and printed copies of the inscriptions were widely circulated not just in Britain but to the whole of Europe including France. Some consider this relatively small piece of stone to be one of the most important artefacts in the world. Because of the three scripts on the stone, Hieroglyphs, the demotic language of the workers and Greek, the priestly decree, to the boy Pharaoh Ptolemy V, was deciphered by British and French scholars opening up a whole new understanding of Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the tombs and temples of the Pharaoh’s which had been lost for over a 1500 years; giving us a greater understanding about the history and culture of Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is on permanent exhibition in the British Museum.
Up to this time the Egyptian Hieroglyphic language was an unknown, a dead language and as I said in my last Blog, Words and Pictures, there is the possibility that the Chinese written language is dying, of course there will be those who disagree I know.
Chinese isn’t the only language to change. English has also evolved over the centuries and is still evolving; there is a continuous drip, drip of new words being introduced and words being excluded from dictionaries because they are felt to be no longer in use. If the meanings of these discarded words disappear entirely then publications from former centuries will lose their true meaning in the context of their time. Not the thee and the thou of the 13th century but the ‘Quiescent, Casuistry, Riverine, Uxorious, Bifurcated, Objurgations’ of C.S. Forester’s “The African Queen” 1935 or the ‘Coruscating, Riparian, Roseate, Coterie’ of Georgette Heyer’s “Detection Unlimited” 1953 each a popular and widely different genre but both written in the mid 20th century, less than a hundred years ago. When was the last time you came across such richly expressive vocabulary in a more recent publication?
With changes in school curriculums, not correcting spelling, not teaching grammar and the growing use of computers, texting and tweeting, with their speed writing adaptations of spelling and words, is there a real risk that written English will degenerate? Will it matter? Is it already dumbing down?
When I was a child we wrote with a fountain pen and were encourage to either print or do cursive joined up writing, each letter the same height clear and legible probably a real blessing to the teachers who had to correct our books. We were rewarded for our efforts which were seen as an accomplishment. One of my favourite possessions is a sampler embroidered by some anonymous child in the 1860’s;
Go not half-way to meet a coming sorrowe,
Butte thankful bee for blessings of to-day;
And praye that thou may’st blessed bee tomorrow,
Soe shalt thou goe with joye upon thy way.
The spelling and language are of its day, the script is as clear and legible as on the day she sewed it.
Quiescent: inactive, dormant, at rest
Casuistry: misleading subtle reasoning on moral issues
Riverine: relating to a river
Uxorious: devoted or submissive husband
Bifurcated: to split or divide into two parts
Objurgations: to angrily chide or scold someone
Coruscating: Show of brilliance light or thought
Riparian: Owner of riverbanks
Roseate: pink plumage or an unrealistic optimistic perception
Coterie: small mutually exclusive group