Hodder, the UK publisher of Enid Blyton’s work, has decided they are going to “sensitively and carefully” revise the text of her books. They’re starting with 10 of the Famous Five novels. Mercy me, or rather, as the new text would have it, oh no.
The Guardian reports that Hodder’s research turned up the unsurprising result that the language of the 1940’s is slightly harder for parents and children of the new millennium to understand. The changes are largely to be expressions in the dialogue, changing the things like ‘awful swotter’ to ‘bookworm’ and ‘it’s all very peculiar’ to ‘it’s all very strange.’
Various rationalisations have been brought into play to justify the changes, including that Blyton herself would have been in favour of it (though she died in the late 1960’s without having inserted a single ‘groovy’ into her books) and, the perennial favourite, that language must evolve or the people of today won’t be able to understand it. A more cynical interpretation would be that Hodder, who sell more than 500,000 copies of the Famous Five novels a year, care little for the authenticity or repute of the books and just want to better streamline or popularise a product in order to squeeze more money out of it.
Changing the text of a book for contemporary convenience warps an essential part of the book’s soul – its language. If one is trawling for racist terms or whatnot then an argument could be made, but if one wants to remove the word ‘gay’ from the text simply because its meaning has changed over the last few decades, then you’re essentially trying to rewrite history in small but cumulative ways. All for the sake of a bit more profit and in the assumption that children and adults not only can’t comprehend that language changes, but that they’re not interested in the process itself.
Language evolves from a historical base, if we replace that base with contemporary vernacular what will happen to the flexibility and growth of language? That might be getting overly dramatic considering we’re talking about Enid Blyton here, but these things are important. Respecting and understanding the language of the past endows children with a valuable perspective and a font of language they can play with and evolve. Taking that away by dumbing down or revising books for commercial convenience is, at the very least, slightly insulting and a bit of a shame. At worst? Hamlet may end up accusing Laertes of misunderestimating him.