Mind your language at The British Library


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British Library

The British Library is hosting an exhibition called Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices until 3rd April. Whilst not obviously being the most obvious exhibition to takes kids to, there are several things that make this one a winner in my book. The British Library is just out side of St Pancreas Station, which is itself between Euston and Kings Cross, so its pretty easy to get to. Providing you live in or around London of course!

The study of language is actually quite an interesting thing, particularly when it comes to reading books. I read a while a go that the Enid Blyton Famous Five books were being “modernised” to removed all of the archaic language that todays youngsters apparently can't fathom. No more does Julian explode, “You fathead!”, which as a 7 year old I always read as “fath-ead” rather than “fat-head”, my reading making pretty much no sense at all, instead he'll use some contemporary insult that no doubt will go over my head. I've lost track of where were currently are on the use of the word “bad”, does it still mean “good” or has it gone back to actually meaning “bad”? I lose touch with these things.

I think the use of colloquial English was really brought to life recently in the book group I belong to though. We meet once a month to discuss a book on a particular theme or some such and it just as so happened to be that after Christmas we'd decided on the rather silm tome that Truman Capote wrote called Breakfast at Tiffany's. I'd ordered the book via an application on my mobile phone without reading the details too carefully, just opting for the cheapest version that was displayed.

 

What eventually arrived was a bizarre book that turned out to be an English language version for native German speakers. Each page was half in English with the bottom half of the page containing notes in German that described any unfamiliar words or phrases. One of these particularly stuck in my mind. In the book a character is pours himself a jigger of whiskey which he then proceeds to down in one. I don't know the exact measurement of a jigger but your mind fills it in for you- enough to down dramatically, so it can't be a single shot but is probably less than a tumbler full. The rather helpful notes for the German reader, a nation famed for their precision, quantified a jigger as 43cm cubed. We all got a chuckle out of this but at the same time it also shows how over a relatively short period of time words or phrases can fall out of use.

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