Inheritance is always a tricky topic when brought up in Britain. With this country’s colonial history its seems fashionable at the moment for debates on institutions like the British Museum, or even on our own hallowed halls of learning, to crop up.
The conclusions reached are usually something along the lines of “actually, it’s there now, just leave it be, so it isn’t always the easiest topic to approach”. In other circumstances, inheritance can be the proverbial opener of a tin of particularly claustrophobic worms, not only sparking family feuds which reduce the drama of Aunt Mabel’s refusal to do Christmas into a happy memory, but also feed into wider debates about social equality, the place of inheritance taxes, and politics in general. It was never going to be pretty, was it?
Whatever your personal opinion on the rights and wrongs of the inheritance of money or debt, thinking about how the passing down of physical things is quite a different matter from seeing how the past has shaped our language, culture and, consequently, our identity.
The effect that language has on our day-to-day is huge. We know this though: think about how things like pronouns, political correctness, or even just slang on its own is heaped with connotation. But these are often examples of the current changing our language. The way the past does it is less obvious and gives us a look into the world that it came from. Just think of the way that Icelandic, for instance, has nearly fifty different words for snow. Equally, English (once called “a shameless whore” by arch-lingophile Stephen Fry) has various words that we’ve nicked blatantly from other languages. You didn’t think that we came up with kangaroo, baklava or pain au chocolat ourselves, did you?
More interestingly, what about little phrases and idioms unique to a group or place and what they symbolise? One of my favourite idioms (if only for the dramatics usually accompanying it) comes, like me, from Ireland: “there’ll be wigs on the green”. It essentially means trouble is on its way. But my mother told me after I’d learnt a bit more about my heritage, that it specifically referred to a battle in which the wigwearing English had been (for the meantime) defeated. A quick google reveals that this might not have actually happened, but it forms a Romantic image nonetheless. While I have only inherited a spattering of Irish language phrases here and there, it’s through idioms and slang – as with language users the world over – that I keep a linguistic inheritance and share a culture which shapes my identity.
It is for these reasons, then, that our language is so crucial as a part of our national and personal identity. It provides nuances and records of our histories. Living in Wales has shown me how much the preservation of dying languages matters to so many and so much. On match days, the phrase “cymru am byth” is seen and heard being used by Welsh supporters, regardless of how much Welsh they can actually speak. It unites them and marks them out from the rest of the Anglophonic island they live on. There certainly isn’t an English rugby equivalent, and there doesn’t need to be. England’s identity hasn’t been challenged in the way that Wales’ has. Like many nations colonised by England, this pride comes in response to a history where Welsh-speaking itself was punished by teachers in schools. By inheriting the language (or lack thereof) we also inherit this history of oppression by the English. While traipsing through the ropes of Anglo-Saxon in a tute, I was shocked to find out that the very word “Welsh” derives from an Old English word for both “foreigner” and “slave”. Despite this, and despite being a non-Welsh speaking myself, the effects of the Welsh language upon vernacular in Wales is everywhere – from listening to exasperated teacher’s exclaim “ych-a-fi” (meaning “that’s disgusting” or just simply “ew”) over scrappy homework submitted as close to the deadline as this article was or watching my immigrant mother codify road signs like araf. Seeing this and hearing this around me every day made me aware of the cultural inheritance, even in a diluted form., that I’ve inherited.
But on a less oppressed note, what about the way that our own Oxford language has been created trhough the university’s history? If you mention a “tute” to a friend at another uni, you’ll be met with confused stares, and then probably have the piss taken out of you. Let’s not even get into a “plodge” and the uniquely Oxbridge things which go on in there (from porters to pidges). While we aren’t quite the only place where one can find a punt, we are one of the few places where virtually everyone knows what one is and the ultimate form of procrastination they represent. Bop for most can mean a lot of things from a bash, bounce or boogie. Only here are evening of drunken hijinks to a noughties soundtrack brought immediately to mind. Bod is paired with hot rather than card. A collection is something which happens at church, not at the beginning of term. Trinity for the rest of the world is God the father, son and spirit. Hilary is usually followed by Clinton not term and Michaelmas is pronounced in any number of ways. Just look at the centuryold linguistic heritage which we’ve absorbed by the end of freshers without even thinking. While this does bring us together, it also gives off the impression of something cultish and certainly, that verb-du-jour, elitist….
But what’s to be done about this? Should we stop using the word “Welsh” because of what it once meant? Out of shame of the British Empire, should we discontinue calling our nan’s house a bungalow? Are we being elitist by knowing what sub fusc is? But rather than actual theft, the fact that our whorish language (or other countries’ more prudish ones) totally reflects where it’s come from is only natural. Just like everyone and everything else. To strip a language of words or phrases that it’s picked up along the way reduces it and its speakers sense of identity and what we can actually do with it in a very 1984-esque manner.
Equally, language is above all a way to connect to our community and create a distinct identity for it. It’s a social bond.