Speech by the Decade

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Things change over time:  A week or so ago my husband and I watched a number of films shown on television for the first time. They had been made to be shown in foreign countries, mostly commonwealth ones, in the1960’s, often featuring interviewers or presenters from those countries.  Many of them featured the sights of London – such things as London buses and the King’s Road, with all the new fashions of the 1960’s, the idea being that they promoted Britain overseas.

We were both aware that things had changed during the last 40 years, but surely not as much as this. It was like travelling back in a time machine or even visiting a foreign country. Accents were different. Not a trace of ‘Estuary English’ which is now a very common accent, especially in the south east. There was a mixture of people – students from Africa and immigrants from the West Indies, encouraged by the government of the time. There must have been people from other lands, but only one Australian and one Canadian were seen and no European visitors at all.

We were amazed at how much English had changed in such a relatively short period. This is something to be taken into consideration by those who are studying the language. When I was at school and learning French the books we were using had been written many years before and so were, at least to some extent, out of date. Make sure you learn from up to date materials. A menu from Pizza Hut may be more use than a 1920’s novel. Some language from earlier times is still used of course. Blockbuster came in the1940s to mean a huge success and is still used for best selling books or popular films. Bands still have gigs, which in 1930 meant a job. I don’t recall it in general use until the1980s, but that might be because I’m not particularly interested in pop culture. Other words and phrases didn’t last very long at all. If you refer to legs as ‘gams’ or men’s underwear as ‘skivvies’ few today will have any idea of what you mean, but we do still talk about ‘workaholics’ and ‘Yuppies’.

Your own language is probably changing just as quickly. A good way to keep up is to listen to radio stations such as BBC World Service, although they tend to be on the conventional side. If you can get hold of student magazines if you want to read language that is on the cutting edge i.e. the latest, though any magazine tends to use more of the new language than books. I f your local library doesn’t stock such magazines ask if it is possible. Libraries are after all meant to serve the needs of their readers. You may not get an immediate response, because subscriptions are already paid, but perhaps when the current subscriptions run out the librarian might be willing to make a few changes.

There are many influences upon the English language - here and overseas. There are for instance schools in the U.K. where the children may speak in total as many as 100 languages at home. There are also areas where Australians predominate, or Poles, Jamaicans or Indians. There is naturally an overlap between the mother tongue and standard English, if there is such a thing. This may influence accent or word order as well as the words used. Urdu for instance has the same word order more or less as German with verbs at the end. Australians refer to sweets as ‘lollies’ and so it goes on. I love the way the language evolves and the fact that there is a constant stream of new words – though I do find it odd when young people living far away from Essex deliberately adopt Estuary English. That is just perverse.