Showing posts with label English language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English language. Show all posts

24 October 2013

A Question of Grammar

by Eve Fisher

In the course of a misspent life, I've noticed that words are tricky things. Slippery. Even though most people think they know exactly what words mean, what a passage means, what this SAYS - well, maybe not. There are two main reasons for this:

(1) We all interpret everything we read, hear, or say through the filter of our own separate minds, and we can never QUITE get across what is in our minds.

EXAMPLE: I taught (briefly) a creative writing class, and the first exercise I did was say words, and have everyone write down the image it conjured in their minds. Then we compared images. "Apple" was represented by Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, the Apple record logo and, of course, the computer. So much for precision in language - choosing the exact word that everyone will understand the same way...

(2) The actual grammar of language, learned as infants, coded almost into our DNA, leads to far more ambiguity than anyone ever talks about.

I have a lot of examples for the second one, which I personally think is very important. Some of it comes from when I put myself through undergraduate school by teaching ESL classes. I taught Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian, Vietnamese, and Puerto Rican students, and in the course of teaching them English, I learned a lot about my language, their languages, language in general.

English has the largest vocabulary on the planet, because we have incorporated, adopted, and stolen words from every culture we've run across. This gives us a huge array of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives to choose from. So many, that foreign students often got fed up. Just take a look at Roget's Thesaurus some time to understand why.

English has an obsession with time. Most languages make do with simple present, simple past, simple future, conditional past/conditional future (woulda/coulda/shoulda), and the imperfect past (the way things USED to be). English laughs at that simplicity, and slices and dices time until we swim like a fish in a multi-dimensional chronology that we take for granted. The prime example is that English (as far as I know) is the only language with three - count them, THREE - present tenses: I do. I do that often. I am doing it right now. I eat. I eat here often. I am eating. Drove students crazy, and they usually just stuck to the simple present, because they could never figure out the others.

But English is sweet when it comes to nouns, because we don't gender them. ALL our nouns are gender-free. The book; the chair; the woman; the man. All European languages, of course, decline nouns (changing the end depending on where it stands in the sentence) and they also gender nouns - they are male, female, and (sometimes) neuter. What this means is that the pronoun you use after you use the noun must match the gender of the noun. This is a piece of cake in English: I took the book to the library, where I gave it to the librarian. But in French, it would be I took the (male) book to the library, where I gave HIM to the librarian. Well, what's the big whoop about that, you might ask? Allow me to provide an example where changing the pronoun changes the meaning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5, King James Version)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Au commencement était la Parole, et la Parole était avec Dieu, et la Parole était Dieu. Elle était au commencement avec Dieu. Toutes choses ont été faites par elle, et rien de ce qui a été fait n'a été fait sans elle. En elle était la vie, et la vie était la lumière des hommes. La lumière luit dans les ténèbres, et les ténèbres ne l'ont point reçue. (John 1:1-5, Louis Segond version)

Or, to translate it literally from French to English [my emphasis added], "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. SHE was in the beginning with God. All things were made by HER, and nothing of what was made was made without HER. In HER was the life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not receive HER."

A slight difference. With implications. For one thing (aside from all questions of faith or Catholic doctrine) I think it helps explain the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and the concept (later doctrine) of Mary as Mediatrix of all the graces.

On a lighter note, my favorite example of differences in translation:

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (KJV, Matt. 5:5)
"Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!" (Louis Segon, MAtt. 5:5)
Let me assure you, les debonnaires are not the meek... they are the good-natured, the easy going. THEY will inherit the earth, at least in France!

Pronouns matter; words matter; grammar matters. Think about that the next time you read a Maigret, or a Steig Larsson - or the next time someone tells you, "just do what it says."

PS:  By the way, the fact that all of the quotes above are from the Bible is in no way deliberate - it's just that the Bible has about the only books that I've read both in French & English.  Almost all the other books that I have read in French, I have only read in French.

08 October 2013

Our Common Language

by Dale C. Andrews

The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.

     George Bernard Shaw

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.                                                             
                                                                                                                                                              Oscar Wilde
                                                                                  The Canterville Ghost

       For whatever reason, the language of Shakespeare seems to invite inconsistencies.  Writer H. Beam Piper has attributed this to the very foundation of the language:  "English is the result of Norman men-at-arms attempting to pick up Saxon barmaids and is no more legitimate than any of the other results."   While that might be a bit over the edge, we are still left with a perplexing language.  Bill Bryson, taking a more scholarly approach, has observed that "English grammar is so complex and confusing for the very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin, a language with which it has precious little in common."  It is relatively easy to find examples of the resulting inconsistencies.  "Debt," a word we likely adopted from the French, nonetheless carries a non-French silent "b," which tracks its lineage back to the Latin word "debitum."  And look at our simple rule that putting the prefix "in" in front of a word turns the word into its opposite -- inhumane, inconsistent, inflexible are examples.  So what about invaluable?  Such internal quirks in the language only intensify when those speaking it are geographically separated.

       Years ago, when I was in private practice, an attorney with whom I worked traveled to Japan to make a presentation before the board of directors of one of our major clients. The attorney was accompanied by a representative of the client, a Japanese man who had lived most of his life in the U.S. and, as a result, was well positioned to straddle the differences between the two cultures. After the attorney’s presentation the chairman of the board stood, offered his hand, and as they shook said “Thank you for the presentation. Our views are completely parallel.” After leaving the board room the attorney turned to the company representative and said “I thought that went really well.” The representative’s eyes widened. “How can you say that? It was a disaster.” “But,” the attorney responded, “the chairman said their views were completely parallel.” “That means,” the representative said, shaking his head, “that they never intersect.” 

       This anecdote is a bit afield from the Shaw and Wilde quotes set forth above, since the countries involved were the United States and Japan, but it still illustrates the point. Just as species of animals and plants evolve differently on different continents, so, too, words, each of which is a work in progress. 

       In the new novel Lexicon (which premises a world in which words are used for their magical powers by a group of wordsmiths referred to as “poets”) author Max Barry notes, for example, that the word “cause” is in the process of changing from meaning strict causation to denoting the causation of something bad. (He was the cause of the problem). And, as noted by Shaw and Wilde, the evolution of words can proceed differently in different regions, even those purporting to speak the same language. This can be true regionally within a country, and can become even more pronounced in different countries, geographically separated, that start off with a common language.

Barney and Clyde, Weingarten & Clark, Copyright 2013,
The Washington Post
       In the United States, for instance, the word “moot” is used to denote a settled situation, one that is no longer open for discussion. By contrast, in England an issue that is “moot” is one open for discussion. Similarly, when we “table” an issue in the United States the issue becomes off limits for discussion, whereas “tabling” that same issue in the U.K. indicates that it is next up for discussion. 

        Reflective of all of this, a short guide for the English speaker (both U.K. and American) has been circulating on the internet the past couple months that further defines the separation between the two English speaking countries. First reported in an article by Alice Philipson of The Telegraph, the chart might as well make a stop here at SleuthSayers as well. 

            SAY                                          MEAN                                UNDERSTAND

 I hear what you say                   I disagree and do not want to            He accepts my point of 
                                                 discuss it further                               view

With the greatest respect            You are an idiot                               He is listening to me 

That's not bad                            That's good                                     That's poor 

That is a very brave proposal      You are insane                                 He thinks I have courage

Quite good                                 A bit disappointing                            Quite good 

I would suggest                          Do it or be prepared to                     Think about the idea, but
                                                 justify yourself                                  do what you like

Oh, incidentally/ by the way        The primary purpose of                     That is not very important
                                                 our discussion is

I was a bit disappointed that        I am annoyed that                           It doesn't really matter

Very interesting                          That is clearly nonsense                   They are impressed

I'll bear it in mind                         I've forgotten it already                    They will probably do it

I'm sure it's my fault                    It's your fault                                   Why do they think it                                                                                                                          was their fault?

You must come for dinner            It's not an invitation, I'm just             I will get an invitation soon
                                                  being polite

I almost agree                             I don't agree at all                            He's not far from agreement

I only have a few minor                Please rewrite completely                 He has found a few typos

Could we consider some              I don't like your idea                         They have not yet decided
other options

       This helpful little guide can doubtless get you a long way in conversing on either side of the pond, but even it does not cover all contingencies. As an example, if you ask the clerk at the front desk of your hotel “to knock you up” just before breakfast the result is likely to be decidedly different depending upon which side of the Atlantic your hotel is located!

       All of the foregoing examples focus on words that have evolved different meanings in different regions.  But that is not the only problem.  Even when words retain a common meaning pronunciation differences can render them unintelligible to those in different regions.  One of the best detective series that has been broadcast in the last year has been Broadchurch, which aired on BBC America.  Half way through the series, having been unable to understand some critical exchanges, I found that the best way to watch this English language series was with sub-captioning turned on.  And one can encounter similar dialectic challenges without crossing the Atlantic.  Last year I went into a liquor store in Gulf Shores, Alabama to purchase some scotch.  I handed the clerk my Mastercard and she looked at me and asked "Daybit?"  I was perplexed, but only for a moment, before replying "No.  Credit."

      Having led off with Shaw on the difficulty of maintaining a common English language, we might as well let him have the last word as well. With a little help from Lerner and Lowe, that is . . . .