Shades of modern and old English

I recently finished reading Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, featuring some of the most beautiful English-language prose I’ve encountered. In fact, the last such experience may have involved other works by the very Dickens (Oliver Twist, Great Expectations) in the 2009/2010 time frame. Since then, I took a sabbatical from English-language literature throughout the 2012-2017 time frame, mostly to focus on other languages, but also for the contempt and boredom I’ve felt towards the colloquial English.

My relationship with the colloquial language has since hardly varied. It generally evokes little interest in me. On those occasions presenting English language small talk, with little beyond on the horizon, any sense of empathy I may otherwise dispose of in the spirit of innocent chit-chat, diminishes to a critical level. A severe majority of such conversations lead nowhere, and for the sake of energy conservation, I prefer to limit them.

Notwithstanding, I more than respect the formal language. I evidently write in it, have resumed the English literary tradition for now a few months, and engaged the Toastmasters English-language charter of Kraków to improve public speaking. It goes to say, I welcome the opportunity to present, teach, explain, discuss, philosophize, debate even, provided the freedom of construct, eloquence, and inevitably the awkwardness enabled by the greater scope of the lingua franca.

What I admire in a language, any language, is the potential to pursue avenues of risk, to explore less frequent constructions, to manipulate, and to challenge personal boundaries. It upsets me that a severe majority of speakers restrict language usage to a set of accepted clichés and anticipatory patterns. Language development need not cease after preparatory education.

Anytime I compose a writing of any complexity beyond, perhaps, a short technical commentary, what much excites me is the prospect of experimenting with words, in a way an infant rummages among a pile of toy robots or dolls (what do infants play with nowadays?). Much of the time I feel uncertain if a particular construct respects the standards of the established grammar etiquette, if the mighty Oxford dictionary even recognizes the word, or if some foreign-origin influence (mis)led me to a fabrication. I make mistakes aplenty. However, precisely these mistakes enable me to ascertain points of uncertainty, and expand. I encourage language risk.

Tale of Two Cities and Old English

Dickens, in writing the historical novel, employed such extensive rhetoric, and such rich storytelling texture, that I diminished my already modest reading pace to a crawl in order to even aspire to the degree of comprehension and appreciation the prose deserves. I limited the reading to a maximum of an hour most days, which meant as little as two pages of content on some occasions to deconstruct the more complex elements, unquestionably worthy of the incredible experience.

At such an exaggeratively slow pace, one might raise a concern of continuity and remembrance. To my fortune, the author produced the novel in serialized format, common for the time period. In this case, the readers digested the “mere” 300-page epic over a suspenseful seven-month period, with Dickens having leveraged cleverly interposed memory triggering devices to insure readers maintained a sense of continuity.

By virtue of this novel, I not only reasserted the pleasure of self-indulging in the English language (at times to the point of incomprehensibility), but also reacquainted myself with the ancient charm of the second-person pronoun thou, or rather the informal you form that long abandoned the English language usage.

If memory serves, Dickens represents the only pre-20th century English-language literature I’ve undertaken, excluding the Shakespearean works I only pretended to read in High School, while under the hallucinogenic influence of televised entertainment and video games. In contrast with the prior experiences of tragedy, and sorrow, pun intended, I now engaged the Old-English writing with the passion of a language enthusiast. The self-imposed 6-year language exile did not pass in vain.

The Old-English I refer to is the Dickens period English - a far more modern English variety than the Shakespearean. I prefer to clarify this point to avoid frightening (or misleading) any aspiring readers uninitiated in the Dickens body of work. Perhaps Victorian English might better classify the variant, but I use the two interchangeably.

Second-person informal pronoun

Thou, the informal second-person pronoun, played the same role as the respective informal pronoun in other European languages that incorporate the construct. Thou was reserved for informal or intimate acquaintances and relations, and you for everyone else. As it gradually phased-out of spoken (but not written) language in the 17th century, you, a previously formal pronoun, inherited the unified role of both. Curiously, the same phenomenon impacted the Brazilian Portuguese, although not the European variety. Tu, the informal second person pronoun abandoned the language usage, replaced entirely by você, the latter previously reserved for formal addressing. (There is, however, a separate construct to indicate a severe degree of formality.)

Thou bears notable similarity to the German informal pronoun Du with all it’s inclinations. In fact, the verbs of the two respective pronouns are very similarly conjugated, revealing a closer past relationship between the two Germanic languages. I made several annotations on the informal pronoun usage in Tale of Two Cities. The genitive case thine (your), i.e. thine object, for example, directly translates into the German Dein. There is also an additional variety of your - thy, i.e. thy former aspect. The accusative and dative case thee, i.e. dependent on thee, as to thee, she will not hear thee, for thee would correspond to Dich in German, although less similar sounding, i.e. für Dich (for you). The most striking similarity, however, lies in the verb conjugations. Take notice of the Old-English conjugations: thou wouldst, thou wilt, thou didst, thou comest, thou speakst, thou art, thou hast, thou shalt, thou goest, thou canst, thou doest. Now observe the German: Du sprichst, Du magst, Du kommst, Du hast, Du kannst, Du auflädst, Du erhälst. You get the idea.

What do I think on the merits of having both a formal and an informal second-person pronoun? I admire it. It enriches the language all the more. The flexibility to explicitly indicate the degree of formality embellishes the structure. Japanese provides four degrees of formality, and incredibly rich language variety as a result, not surprising for a language notorious for demonstrating and delineating forms of respect. I regret not having continued to develop this language, which, once upon a time, consumed the top spot in the list of priorities.

The flexibility of second-person addressing does not ultimately define whether I firmly respect the language, as it once may have. At one point I felt burdened by the English-language inability to express the second-person more formally. (The way I perceive the modern English usage, at least the North-American variety, leads the you pronoun to sound rather informal, entirely in contrast with the Old-English.) Other languages I commanded at the time possess the necessary second-person pronouns. However, once I developed Brazilian Portuguese, it quickly became my favorite spoken language, or at least, along with Polish, a contender for the spot. And as I mentioned, Brazilian Portuguese has mostly diminished to one second-person pronoun (with exceptions in certain Brazilian states).

In some cases, the second-person form flexibility causes me significant burden in the act of addressing a person. This has notoriously become the story of engaging older figures in otherwise informal settings such as clubs or gatherings. Finding myself in this pickle, I sometimes resort to avoiding the second-person altogether - not a trivial, but neither an impossible task. The same languages that enable the additional second-person form generally enable some neutral-form escape mechanism.

On the one hand, I have experienced notable struggle in the act of considering the more fitting pronoun, something a speaker of strictly English or Brazilian Portuguese may not sympathize with. On the other, I might simply consider the challenge as another in a series of linguistic pleasantries.

Counting System

In addition to the second-person informal pronoun, the older counting system, or rather, the flexibility of choosing one among a few counting systems, caught my attention in the novel. In articulating the number 73, for instance, I encountered the traditional usage of “seventy-three”, as well as two others.

One is the Least-Significant-Digit-First system (my own term, not an official), in this case, yielding “three and seventy.* This, again, pays respect to the older Germanic roots of number counting, which German still maintains. In fact, German utilizes the LSDF counting system exclusively (73 = “dreiundsiebzig” = “three and seventy”). I wonder if the LSDF system simplifies mental arithmetic to closer correspond with the table-top arithmetic method?

The second is the scores construct, the usage of which I recall mainly with the age of individuals, but this need not be exclusive. A score equates to 20, so one would express 73 as “three score and thirteen”, or 45 as “two score and five.” Connoisseurs of French should immediately recognize the similarity with the vigesimal (20-based) system used within some ranges of numbers, depending on the country and dialect.

In all, I carry much respect for a system that offers multiple alternatives to express an idea.

Conclusion

I’m pleased in having re-cultivated the interest in classic English literature. Bleak House and David Copperfield are another two Dickens novels I’ve been anxious to pursue. Literature of this caliber reaffirms the incredible language potential.

I may experience complete indifference to the colloquial language, and that being in the best of cases. Nonetheless, I strive to remain optimistic in the individual capacity to elevate the range of expression, in all the breadth, and all the depth, and to cherish the rich literary tradition.