Sunday, June 29, 2008

Immersion in Quaker History, and Reflections on Language

The joint conference of the Quaker Studies Research Association and the Quaker Historians and Archivists here at Woodbrooke has been going well. Not only was I already immersed in Quaker history from my own reading, but now this weekend I've been surrounded by historians talking about other dimensions of Quaker history as well. As I read some very old books from the library, I cannot help but wonder which early Friends may have themselves touched these books!

The version of the Bible that is common here is the New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized Edition. Intrigued, I read the Preface that explains why an "Anglicized Version" is needed. Short answer: British English and American English are diverging! I have been trying to notice the divergences, but I do not pick up on them too easily. I have spent enough time in the British Isles in the past that I adjust to the differences fairly easily. But there have been enough Americans around for these two conferences that I do notice the differences when I see them get confused. Last night, for example, the Friends in Residence offered us "torches" if we wanted to go into Bournville to watch the fireworks (they were having some kind of festival there). The Americans in the room suddenly imagined us all trekking through the night carrying flaming branches of wood, while the British and Australians were just thinking of (what Americans call) flashlights!

Besides, I have been reading lots of 17th century English, which confuses all the more any sense I have of what "normal" English should be like! Now I have a habit of suspending belief about what any word or phrase I read or hear is supposed to mean! (For example: "Is that use of 'want' supposed to mean 'desire' or 'lack'?")

In the preface to a new "old" version of Barclay's Apology, the editor explains why it is better not to translate 17th century English into contemporary English. The English back then was very close to English now, he insists. If you try, you can get used to it. And I have found this to be true.

I cannot help but wonder how someone from back then would hear our use of English now. Can we imagine how much English will change in the future?

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