Those who have looked at other pages on my website may have noticed that many of them are topped and tailed by quotes relating to history. One of my favourites is ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’ (George Santayana). A couple more to save you searching every page ‘If you want to understand today you have to search yesterday’ (Pearl Buck) ‘What is the fire in our belly but the eternal flame of a thousand ancestors’ (Robert Brault).
Having cited the telling words of others, let us think about words in general. Those of us who are interested in the past often do not consider how our predecessors spoke and sounded. This is not just about regional accents, although these are important and sadly, rapidly being eroded. It is about the words and phrases that were used. I work in the seventeenth century as an historical interpreter and we do attempt to change our phraseology to sound other than twenty-first century. We do not speak as people would have four hundred years ago. To begin with the only evidence we have for seventeenth century language comes from the literature of the time; Shakespeare being the most obvious example. Studying his language and that of his fellow writers, helps but this is of course the ‘dramatic’ language of the literate and may not reflect how your ancestors would have spoken. Anyone who has studied Chaucer will know that Medieval language would be almost unrecognisable today. Luckily recordings survive for language and dialects of the last century but much of this is in ‘BBC’ English and not everyday speech. Records in the vernacular do survive and the advent of YouTube means that they are become more easily available outside of sound archives. Do take the trouble to seek them out.
More recently, it is about the use and meaning of words. The linguistic differences between English speaking nations is significant. We all know that English English needs translating for Americans and vice-versa. The differences between English English and Australian English are less marked (perhaps because colonisation came later) but they are there none the less. Anyone aged forty or more can think of words that have changed their meanings within our life-time. Each generation has its own cult or slang words. New words come into our vocabularies and regrettably, many more drop out of use. If we are writing our own memoirs, or the story of our families, we should also include a flavour of the words that were used. So ‘groovy’ of my 1970s teenagerhood has gone but ‘cool’ has recently been revived. What phrases or sayings do you remember from your childhood? Are there words or expressions that were unique to your family or area? Preserve them while you can.