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Funnyoldlife and I went to the British Library the other week to have a look at their new Evolving English exhibition – a history of the English language as she is spoke and wrote.

I think my verdict on the exhibition has to be that very English expression – like the curate’s egg, “good in parts”.

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones." Curate: "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!" George du Maurier, in Punch, 1895

Actually it was excellent in parts, but the exhibition design let it down badly in terms of accessibility and not just for deaf people, though we had fun doing rehab as we walked round. The entrance lobby had a projection of a spinning globe with video clips of native or 2nd language English speakers from around the world. They zoomed up one by one giving us facts in their native accents: the key words from each segment were also beamed up beside them on a second screen – summary subtitling, if you like! We did well with that and moved on to Anglo-Saxon manuscripts where I was squealing internally with barely suppressed excitement. I love a good Old English manuscript. Nothing makes me happier. There’s just something about the “official” name of a manuscript that I just love.

One of those manuscripts was British Library Cotton Vitellius A.xv – and in case you’re wondering why on earth a manuscript has such a funny name, it comes from its former owner, the great manuscript collector Sir Robert Cotton, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. Each of his bookcases was topped by the bust of a Roman emperor, and so you know that this one was under the guardianship of Vitellius and his rather portly features. ‘Top shelf material’ has a rather different meaning here, while it was of course the 15th book along on that shelf. I imagine all these Roman Emperors squinting down rather grandly in the Cottonian library at the reams of vellum below – a material they would have recognised, but written in a tongue they would have regarded as barbarous (Latin in origin) and uncouth (Anglo-Saxon in origin, and therefore alien to our Emperors, though I’m sure they would have shared the sentiment).

Cotton Vitellius A.xv is the Beowulf manuscript, the earliest surviving vernacular (non-Latin) epic in Europe, dating to around 1000AD but preserving a tradition probably already 200 years old. The script and spelling may be unfamiliar, but many words in this and other surviving Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English) material are equally well preserved with little modification: modor, faeder, broðor (‘brothor’), swester;  also deaf, blind, dumb are exactly the same now as they were then. I find it interesting that words for disabilities have changed as little as words for the family, suggesting that they were in everyday use. And when you think of illness, accident and war, it’s not surprising.

We were also able to listen to a recording of someone reading out from the manuscript in a reconstructed Old English pronunciation in tandem with a scrolling screen highlighting the written words from the manuscript. I had no difficulty in following, simply because I had a misspent youth studying, you guessed it, Old English, but I thought how daft it was that a transcript in easier-to-read modern spelling and a translation were not also provided to aid the enjoyment and understanding of all visitors. And so on and so forth throughout.

The same screen then changed to a talking head giving, I presume, some introduction to the exhibition. Why wasn’t it subtitled? There’s an irony here in exploring the history of the English language in both its written and spoken formats and then only providing the accompanying information in the one form or the other. Some of the manuscripts were in such beautiful calligraphy but the letters were too minute to be easily read or took unfamiliar forms, as if the exhibition were designed by palaeographers (specialists in old handwriting) for palaeographers, rather than introducing people to the bones of their own language. Blown-up copies on information panels with transcripts would have informed and delighted a far wider audience – and made the exhibition more accessible for those with vision impairments as well as the sighted visitor without specialist knowledge.

Nevertheless there was much to amuse and delight, and the exhibition finished on the same note as it had begun, with speakers and transcripts. There were info-bars loaded with famous 20th century speeches by English speakers in their different accents, with transcripts available on touch screens. Full marks there. All were examples of stirring rhetoric and each in their own way an inspiration for our own journey making sense of the world with our new CIs. Sometimes it’s a battle: We shall fight them on the beaches, but I think we’re determined: The lady’s not for turning. And it was excellent rehab too.

Everyone with a CI is also a work in progress – just like the English language. And as the numbers of people with cochlear implants grow, so too the English language is augmented by the vocabulary associated with CIs. I was actually quite amazed the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have a definition for ‘cochlear implant’, although Merriam-Webster, the American authority, includes it, with an earliest usage of 1980. (UK readers should be able to access the OED via their local library card and pin number.)

And we’re also making up our own vocabulary. I very much liked borgerise – which to me suggests becoming energised through becoming a cyborg. Which is true – life is so much easier! And it enables us to enjoy the English language in all its forms, not just the written version. Are there any more cyborg-specific words out there, or words that you’ve made up to describe something you think or feel about your implant? In the meantime – I think there’s scope for a new entry in the OED . . .

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