On Musical Revivals and Rescuing the English Language

Maccius Plautus, a Roman comedic playwright who incorporated song-like chanting into his plays, is believed to have introduced the world to musical theatre in the third century BCE. Two centuries before that, it is thought that Ancient Greeks Sophocles and Aeschylus added music and dance to their dramatic performances. So adding a little song and dance to scripted drama is nothing new. Yet none of us expect it to have remained in its original form – we don’t inhabit the worlds of Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece. Instead, we expect musical theatre to resonate in the here and now, to mirror our cultural context.

Every generation of musical theatre has adapted to suit its contemporary audiences. In the Elizabethan era, the musical instruments of the time – such as the lyre and the organ – were included in performances; The Beggar’s Opera of 1778 saw the blend of music and satire, as ‘respectable’ citizens of the day were ridiculed on stage; the French and Viennese Operettas of the 1800s evolved into the musical as we know it today, perpetually morphing to suit its audience. The genre has not stood still – and nobody expected it to.

This is not to say that nostalgia is absent from musical theatre. The massive popularity of the revival genre – of which there has been a slew since the 1970s – is proof of this. The renaissance of the familiar is a comfort we can all relate to. A glimpse into the past offers a welcome context. Nevertheless, most revivals (perhaps better described as revisals) contemporise their material and offer something new. As an example, the original 1966 version of Cabaret, in which the male lead played a reluctant straight man, spoke to a largely homophobic – or at least unenlightened – audience. Subsequent revivals chart changing attitudes to homosexuality, from the open bisexuality of protagonist Cliff in the 1987 version to the overt sexual fluidity between Cliff and the emcee in Sam Mendes’ incarnation in 1993 (this version went on to be revived on Broadway in 2014). The revival is a hybrid creature, nurturing our penchant for the past while embracing the tenor of the times.

But there is no such tolerance for change, it seems, where the English language is concerned. Like musical theatre, it has evolved beyond recognition over time. For some, modern perils such as new technology, teenage crazes, and playing fast and loose with grammar are of apocalyptic proportions. In 2018, Robert Fist, writing for the Independent newspaper, issued an inflammatory warning:

‘The long, slow decline of our primary method of communication shouldn’t concern only linguistic pedants. We are allowing a perversion of meaning to creep into our language, where words are used for control rather than persuasion’.

Is this simply the ‘linguistic condescension’ of the broadsheet brigade? Or does Fist have a point? Meaning has, of course, been perverted in some cases. The word ‘literally’, for example, is now literally reversed in meaning. Others might point to Fist’s description of English as ‘our’ language as being blindly colonial, especially as those who know their history will be aware that English is a mash-up of numerous external influences. It could also be argued that persuasion – rhetoric – is an inherent means of coercive control anyway, so trying to separate the two is a little like grasping at straws.

But Fist is not alone in his concerns over the ‘destruction’ of English. The Plain English Campaign advocates straightforward language that acts as an anchor of standard communication. One of their fears is the possibility that accepted standards will be forever lost, triggered by the trend of adults mimicking teenage slang terms. The Queen’s English Society is a charity established in 1972, with the sole purpose of safeguarding the language from a perceived decline in standards. And British broadcaster John Humphrys is quick to lambast what he calls ‘language obesity’. By this he is referring to the unwitting and ubiquitous use of tautology (saying the same thing twice but using different words) in English, citing examples such as ‘future plans’ and ‘new initiative’ – the unnecessary words, then, are the equivalent of junk food, hence the obesity analogy.

Humphrys may have a point – but the quirks that infuriate him are inevitable side-effects of a decentralised language. English is driven by its popular usage across the population. Conversely, the French have more centralised control over their language. In 1635 Cardinal Richelieu founded the French Academy (Académie Française) to preserve and protect the official language of French culture. While this may be a source of comfort for linguistic purists, it could also have a downside: there is fine line between preservation and stagnation. English, on the other hand, is constantly susceptible to change. This week, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) announced that its ‘word of the year’ is ‘gaslighting’. Last year it was ‘vax’. And in 2020 there were so many words vying for supremacy (‘unmute’, ‘staycation’, and ‘bubbles’ among them) that the OED simply couldn’t settle on any of them. The English language is pulsating and vibrant – it’s a language with its finger on the pulse. It is this characteristic that enabled Shakespeare – perhaps the most prolific neologist in the history of English – to introduce over 1,700 new words that are still used in English today. In other words, he made language richer. Perhaps the current influx of new words is capturing the essence of specific moments in time, making English more precise and resonant.

Those aberrations that are sometimes attributed to modern culture and declining standards can often be found way back in the past. For example, the singular use of ‘they/their’ can be seen in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida: ‘It is enough to drive anyone out of their senses’. And the double negative crops up in numerous literary classics, including Shakespeare’s Richard III: ‘Never was nor never will be’.  The ‘decline’ is not confined to this century. Our attitude to language is more about us – our age, social class, or belief system – than it is about language itself. Douglas Adams – although speaking in another context – perhaps summarises this notion best:

‘Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that is invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.’

The standard of language we aspire to preserve is a fiction – because English has never stood still. We shouldn’t forget that we could all well be speaking French today, if not for interventions such as the Black Death, populist revolts, and interlingual marriages following the Norman Conquest in 1066. The introduction of the Printing Press further affected the language, spreading the written word in a manner akin to the internet today. Language and culture are fellow passengers through the passage of time. English is the most widely spoken language globally, so the idea of a ‘standard’ is almost impossible to maintain. American, Australian, and UK English all differ from each other. Within the UK alone, there are countless regional variations. Diverse culture calls for diverse language. There is no language to rescue, for it is in no danger of dying.

Modern forms of communication such as texting (which celebrated its thirtieth birthday last week) and emojis may signal impending doom for some. But it is reassuring to take note that there are always people out there ready to hold on to the best of English of yore, such as British lexicographer Susie Dent. Her ‘word of the day’ on Twitter revives vocabulary that has long fallen out of use; 1.1 million followers suggest her passion is not exactly niche. Her one-woman show (The Secret Lives of Words) attracts healthy audience numbers across the UK. She is, in a sense, the linguistic equivalent of the musical revival.

So in vein of all good musical revivals, let’s celebrate our idealised language of the past and simultaneously welcome what is current.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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