English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

By Tim William MacHan; Charles T. Scott | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
Sociolinguistics, Language Change, and the History of English

CHARLES T. SCOTT AND TIM WILLIAM MACHAN

Some fifty years ago, when Latin was a required subject of study in many American high schools, students often expressed their attitude toward this academic exercise with the little ditty:

Latin is a language
As dead as it can be
First it killed the Romans
And now it's killing me.

Without benefit of any technical expertise or linguistic sophistication, the students who sang this song--most with considerable conviction--knew clearly what was meant by a "dead" language. It was a language that existed only in its texts. No one spoke Latin, or wrote it to exchange greetings, to ask for directions, to complain about the weather or the increase in taxes, to interview sports heroes, to report the news of the day, to seek voter support in the next election, to declare that a state of war existed between the United States and Germany-- in short, to do the myriad things, whether trivial or grave, that a "living" language is ordinarily, and extraordinarily, used for. Latin was (and is) no longer a language of everyday communication among people, young and old, as they carry out their daily affairs. Even the Catholic priest, who then used Latin as the language to celebrate the Mass, did not use it to confer with his parishioners, thereby confirming that the language had only a ritual, not a social, function. And without this social function, this use of the language to accomplish the deeds that make up much of the everyday life of a community, there was little real motivation to learn Latin.

In contrast, students of those days (and perhaps today's students) often complained that, if they were to be required to study a foreign language, why could it not be Spanish? Spanish, after all, was the first language of a majority of the people living in the Western Hemisphere: in Mexico, in Central America, in Puerto Rico, in most of the countries of South America. Spanish, too, was the first language of an increasing number of people settling in the United States. Spanish, therefore, was a language to be reckoned with, a language that might be

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