The evolution of English (and of kata).

by Ryan Gregory, July 19th, 2012

Picture the scene. Two rap artists, one Canadian and the other British, engaged in a heated lyrical battle to decide once and for all whose version of English is correct.

Actually, don’t picture the scene — just watch this:

Of course, one could also include Australian, New Zealander, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh versions of English. Not to mention the various regional accents from throughout both North America and the United Kingdom. Which is “true” English? Which preserves the old form of English most faithfully? One might argue, as Prof. Elemental does in his lyrics, that “the Queen’s English” is the true version. Others might point out that today many more people speak English with a North American accent than the one used in Buckingham Palace.

If you ask me, it’s a pointless debate. The history of the English language is very complex, having involved an enormous amount of change from its early Germanic roots, a major influx of words from other languages (especially French after 1066), a “great vowel shift” in pronunciation, and constant evolution of word usage and common slang.

Here’s some Modern English, including a bunch of different accents — all of which can be easily understood:

(Maybe everyone will feel this way when they hear her version of their own accent, but to me the “Toronto” version is at best a lame caricature — sounds much more like Minnesota to me.)

Anyway, these are all relatively minor variations on Modern English, which has been spoken since 1650. Let’s go back to the mid-1500s and listen to an example of Early Modern English. This is the form that was spoken in Shakespeare’s time. The Early Modern English period is also when the “great vowel shift” took place, in which pronunciation of English words changed dramatically. By way of example, listen to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in Early Modern English:

Now let’s go back to the Middle English period, between 1066 and the mid-1500s. Here’s an example of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English:

Or how about going back before the Norman invasion of 1066, to the Old English period? Here’s the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:

The point here is that all of the differences among modern accents are extremely minor when considered in the context of deeper English history. Moreover, all of those modern accents are far more similar to each other than any of them is to, say, Middle English. Indeed, Middle English and Old English are indecipherable to modern English speakers.

And so I believe it is with kata. Yes, there are differences among schools within a given style. And yes, you can tell if someone is training in Okinawan or Japanese Goju-ryu or even in Meibukan vs. Jundokan Okinawan Goju-ryu, but these differences are very minor in the context of karate’s history. Most of the techniques, and even some entire kata, trace their origins back well before the rise of modern karate.

Which is the “true” version of a particular kata? I don’t think we can say. All we can do is try to learn what has been passed down to us and to perform it as best we can given how we have been taught to do so. We should also try to avoid obviously sloppy versions, in the same way that you would not learn about English literature from someone with a thick, slang-ridden rural Texas accent.

This here kata ain’t no good for nuthin’, y’all:

Terrible versions aside, I think the diversity of interpretations of kata enriches us as martial artists, in the same way that different accents do. Similarly, the existence of different styles of karate or different martial arts altogether makes the world a more interesting place, just like having many different languages does. After all, if it weren’t for the existence of distinct Germanic and Romance languages, there’d be no English at all.

Leave a comment

Your comment