I suppose the Egyptians started it all with their hieroglyphics as a form of writing.
Eventually, when dear old Will Shakespeare was strutting around the English theatre world of the sixteen hundreds, real words were used rather than symbols, but actual spelling wasn’t considered by most to be an important issue, or grammar for that matter. If you were educated to a standard where you could read or write in those days, it was more or less up to you how you made use of your skills. You wrote words just as they sounded to you, so depending on where you were brought up, with whatever accent you had, you might write something down with totally different spelling to someone from another part of the country. Someone from the north of England might quite happily write ‘mother’ as ‘moother’, while those in the south could write it as ‘mutha’! (I’m making these particular examples up of course, but I hope it gives you some idea of the point I’m trying to make).
There’s something else Mr Shakespeare was good at too – he made up a whole series of words with which to enliven his plays, many if not most, of which now sit happily in our dictionaries as if they had always been there. He is accredited with over 1700 new words, such as accused, bandit, blanket, champion, dwindle, flawed, jaded, obscene, monumental, puking and gnarled (I won’t write down the whole 1700, that could become boring!). So we owe a massive debt to the good man, for enrichening us language-wise, in more ways than one.
It was many years before Samuel Johnson wrote the first actual dictionary, setting out the spelling and meaning of as many words as he was able to think of, though the number was small compared to the content of the average modern dictionary, but it was a start! From then on, right up to the start of the twentieth century, the English language went through a golden era, ably assisted by such great writers as Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, H.G. Wells and many others. These people were able to construct beautiful sentences, making maximum use of the glorious variety of words at their disposal, so that their writings became classics almost as famous as the original works of Shakespeare himself.
This was also a time of great exploration, with the consequence that English picked up a whole mass of new words, like denim, calico, beaver, wigwam, lotus and kangaroo to name just a few; it was, and still is, a dynamic living language, always ready to accept and absorb new words, unlike some others, most notably Latin, now used purely in an academic atmosphere.
During most of the twentieth century our language was strengthened by the words of industry, describing machine parts, engineering systems and the wonders of aircraft, submarines and, (later) military equipment and space travel. It must have been just about the most exciting century the world had ever seen, with more discoveries and inventions that had happened in the whole of previous human development. And it is still going on today, with the wonders of computers, smart phones, ipads and fibre-optics!
One curious development, language-wise, is the creation of what almost amounts to a brand new language, one which has only come into being since the discovery of ‘social media’, involving the use of data on the telephone, instead of actual spoken words. Where a girl of twenty or so years ago might have said something like, “You are the one I love!” to her boyfriend, nowadays she would type on her smart phone, “u r the 1 I . It’s almost as if the whole writing thing is going right back to the start of it all, with Egyptian hieroglyphics instead of actual words! I reckon we old-timers are pretty close to not being able to read anything written by youngsters, because of this new language, which only they will be able to understand.
I’m not sure whether this is progress or not!
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