Thursday, June 30, 2005
English as a foreign language
I am, at last, reading Jane Austen. The English in it is not 200 years old, but yet it surprises me at every turn.
The spelling is markedly different, the most noticeable being words split that we have joined: "any body" for anybody, "no body" for nobody. In contrast, the punctuation is not that alien, though there are, as one would expect, more commas than we'd use.
The most striking are words whose use reflects a different social mileu. Take "condescension", for example. Here's the insufferable Mr Collins describing his patroness in Pride and Prejudice: "... he had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank -- such affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine. She had been graciously pleased to approve of both the discourses which he had already had the honour of preaching before her."  Elsewhere, reference is made to Mr Collins' admiration of "... Lady Catherine's condescension as he knew not how to admire enough" .
While we think of condescension as a failing, indicating arrogance and offensively patronizing  behavior, it also has the meaning of "affability to your inferiors and temporary disregard for differences of position or rank"  -- clearly a good thing in a patron. In Austen's world, class distinctions are a matter of endless attention and vital importance to one's quality of life, and hence a superior who deigns to ignore them is offering a great courtesy to their inferiors.
It's not the language that's foreign after all, but the world that it is describing.
 Pride & Prejudice, Chapter XIV of Volume I (Chap. 14)
 Pride & Prejudice, Chapter VI of Volume II (Chap. 29)
 Here's another one: patronizing. One meaning is "to treat with condescension", which is bad these days; but it also means "to act as a patron, to support or sponsor", which is a good thing (dictionary.com)
 WordNet and American Heritage Dictionary, cited in dictionary.com