The Oxford Book of English Talk

The Oxford Book of English Talk

The Oxford Book of English Talk

The Oxford Book of English Talk

Excerpt

Englishmen (and to some extent Irishmen, Scotsmen, and Welshmen) have been speaking English for many centuries. Day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute -- in restaurants and public houses, in railway carriages and charabancs, after church and football match and funeral -- a vast and unimaginable tide of conversation ebbs and flows about us. Men will talk, men must talk

Of peace and war, health, sickness, death, and life,
Of loss and gain, of famine and of store...
Of turns of fortune, changes in the state,
The falls of fav'rites, projects of the great,
Of old mismanagements, taxations new:
All neither wholly false, nor wholly true.

Of all this unrehearsed and spontaneous utterance ('Twoand-eleven a yard, I got it at Debenham and Freebody's'... 'What I say is, we can't disarm if Russia won't'...'I couldn't care less'...'Somebody ought to tell the Chancellor that he's killing the goose that lays the golden egg'...) only an infinitesimal part ever gets itself recorded in writing.

Soun is noght but air y-broken,
And every speche that is spoken,
Loud or privee, foul or fair,
In his substaunce is but air.

Go back twenty years, ten years, and almost all of it is irretrievably lost. If we wish to know how Englishmen spoke in the days of Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria we must rely for the most part on the imaginative writers, the dramatists and the novelists. Naturally we should not go to The Fortunes of Nigel to find out how Englishmen spoke at the beginning of the seventeenth century, nor to Henry Esmond to discover how they talked in the reign of Queen Anne: we should prefer to look for our evidence in the works of those writers whose novels or plays are based . . .

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