Here’s something interesting I read the other night in a book called The Celebrated Pedestrian. This thin “toilet read” is a compilation of questions posed by readers of BBC History Magazine. (I prefer to read it in bed not on the potty, just in case you were wondering.)
In the chapter on language, one of the questions was, “how far back in history could we [English speakers] go and still be understood?” Great question.
The answer is a bit complicated and there’s still some debate going on about it, but one of the authors focuses on a very significant change that occurred in England sometime between 1390 and 1420. This change was called the “Great Vowel Shift,” and it came about after “the abandonment of French as the language at court.” (You see, when the Normans conquered England in 1066, they naturally brought their language along with them, and in doing so demoted the local Saxon tongue to second class status. Some Brits have argued that this is where their obsession with hierarchy started.) When the French language left court, it changed the way people pronounced their vowels. For example, the word mouse had once been pronounced moose.
Moose trap anyone?
Factoring in the vowel shift with a loss of inflection (before 1100 English was an inflected language like German), the author states that present-day English speakers “would seriously struggle to understand the spoken word around 1300.” Or rather, Fectoing in da voowel shiift…well, you get the picture and I don’t want to try to write like that for one second more.
Did this vowel shift occur only once? Hardly. In fact, it’s happening right now…in America.
Safe to say Dickens wouldn’t be very good company if he was alive today, but I bet he’d be Tweeting his brains out and figuring out a way to make a pound or two from it. #dickensbirthday #paidperword #showmethemoney
I’ve acted in two plays that were adapted from Dickens’ novels. And, I’m just realizing this right now, they were the first two productions that I actually got paid to act in (if you don’t count my stint as the sheriff’s son at a local Renaissance Faire). Turns out the producers made a very big mistake hiring me, because I wasn’t terribly adept at the craft of acting.
In the first production, I was totally miscast as Uriah Heep in some kind of interactive Dickens-themed Christmas show. The show took place at a poorly heated Victorian mansion in Pennsylvania. I was terrible and my characterization (if you can call it that) basically involved me slinking around the airy rooms ringing my hands and sneaking up on unsuspecting geriatrics and scaring them so much that extra defibrillators had to be installed in the parlor room. On the plus side it gave me the chance to dye my hair red. Incidentally, nothing I did as the humble Mr. Heep had anything to do with to the heavy metal band, Uriah Heep.
In my second paid debacle, I played Pip in Great Expectations at the now defunct Pennsylvania Stage Company. How bad was I? I just found a review. It’s from the newspaper, The Morning Call, and I’ve never seen it until now. “Charlie Schroeder overplays naivete to the near exclusion of richer emotions: shock, weariness, righteous indignation.” I’d like to think that my bad performance had something to do with the theater shutting down shortly after G.E. closed. May it, and Charles Dickens rest in peace.
In the coming days I plan to blog about some of my culinary adventures in Hong Kong and China. To whet your appetite, here’s a very short video I shot in Guangzhou Province in southern China. To give you some perspective, I was standing just outside the restaurant opposite the “menu.” This video captures a small portion of said menu.
In China, menus aren’t always the paper kind that one peruses while seated at a table. They’re three-dimensional-and alive.