Friday, April 24, 2009

The English Language

Mom and Dad on their wedding
day, September 6, 1941.

I read long ago that English was considered the second-most difficult language in the world to learn, next to Chinese. This may be so. (I don't know what Fr. Z. would say about Latin.) The thing with English, as one book (I think it was Language by Mario Pei) said, is that it is basically Germanic with an "imposing Romance superstructure." I took a course in Old English, that is, pre-Conquest English, at the U of MN in 1969, and we had to learn it almost as if it were a foreign language. Anyway, what I see as the main problem with learning English (besides the spelling, which always threw my ESL students for a loop), is not that it has no rules, it's that it has too many, they're too complex, there are too many exceptions, and nobody understands them.

For instance, there's an old rhyme:
I before E, except after C,
Or when sounded like A, as in neighbor and weigh.

When I was in freshman year at De La Salle here in Minneapolis, Brother Paschal the librarian taught us some exceptions to the exceptions, which don't fit the general rule either: "Neither ancient financier seized either species of weird leisure." In the fifty years since, I have added caffeine and codeine -- to the word list, that is, not to myself! Except caffeine.

Now to rant and rave (what fun!)

Google is not a verb. Gift is not a verb. Task is not a verb. Text is not a verb. Partner is not a verb. Anyone who uses them should be made to stand in the corner.

An apostrophe is used to denote a letter or letters that're missing or as a symbol of possession. It is not a symbol of plurality, except when you're talking about a word or letter as such -- for instance, "There are no X's in this sentence." "It's" as a possessive is improper. "It's" means "It is." For instance: "The car's color is black. Yes, its color is black. Yes, it's black."

All kinds of fun and games are had when we talk about S's and apostrophes. Here are some examples of correct usage: "I went to visit John Jones, he's one of the Main Street Joneses, at the Joneses' house. I saw John Jones's (or John Jones') car."

End of rant.

I have to admit there are a few places where I have caved in to modern usage. When I was in high school and the U, it was better to say "back in the 1950's"; now "back in the 1950s" is considered okay, and I do (blush) use it.

My dad, a six-stripe sergeant in the WWII Army, taught me a valuable lesson about strong language. He said that the less you use it, the more shock value it has when you do. I have to admit that when I was in my early twenties, I worked a laboring job where foul words were used as punctuation marks, and it took me a long time to clean up my mouth after that. (I'm not entirely successful yet; the moral of the story is be careful what bad habits I take up, because they're easier to adopt than to get rid of.) Now, I go to my favorite beer and burger joint, and hear folks -- young women, too -- use language that would make a whore blush.

One time when I was about 9 or 10, I got the not-so-bright idea of using some "barracks language" in front of my mom (who never reached 5'0" in her life but made up for it with tempered steel). She hardly raised an eyebrow, and said very calmly, "If I ever hear those words out of your mouth again, I'll wash your mouth out with soap." Less than a minute later, I was in a headlock on the front porch (so the neighbors could see), having my mouth washed out with a washrag soaked with the suds of brown laundry soap. (Fels-Naptha, by the way, they still make it, and it'll take anything off anything, except gorilla glue off my skin.)

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