Thursday, June 30, 2011

Which English to you speak?

Geography affects language, no doubt about it.  Israeli is a small country, barely six hours drive from top to bottom.  Modern Hebrew, but not ancient Hebrew which was diffused throughout Europe and Asia, has one actual form no matter where you physically are located.  In other words, residents of Eilat and Kiriat Shmone, the southern and northern tips of Israel, understand each other without any difficulty.  By contrast, Arabic, formally spoken over thousands of kilometers, has become so localized that Egyptians don’t understand Moroccans.   There may be one literary, written Arabic, but countless spoken Arabic languages.

Likewise, English is spoken as a native tongue throughout the world in North America, the U.K, Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, and Kenya, to name just a few.  These places are geographically, ethnically, and sociologically far apart.  It is no surprise that a localized form of English has appeared in each country.  In fact, the main surprise is how homogenous English has remained.  Once you get used to the local accent (the Scottish one can be a bit difficult to pick up in the beginning, I admit), slang, and spelling variations (so practical that American drive thru), we all really speak the same language.  The list of spelling differences is so small relative to overall English vocabulary as to make it irrelevant in terms of comprehension.  On the surface, it looks that English is English is English, to paraphrase that trite phrase.

However, the main users of English are not actually native speakers, but people who speak English as a second or even third language.  Going to an international conference makes you realize how diversified the English language has become.   The program states that the main presentations are in English, but that seems an illusion.  The words may be in English, but the sentence structure, creative use of certain terms, and intonation seem to create a country-specific language well beyond any Yankee-Brit quibbling. These speakers of English language as a second language have created a type of creole, a mix of English vocabulary and local structure/grammar.  The African slaves to the United States and Caribbean Islands did the same hundreds of years ago.  The process is natural and unavoidable.  One could argue that the English language itself is a creole of Anglo Saxon and French.  After more than twenty three years in Israel, my English has been affected by Hebrew expressions and forms, an experience common to any immigrant in any country.

If variety is the spice of life, then English is jubilee (an English word with a Hebrew root).  To use a modern phrase, it began as a localization (or localization in the U.K) and has never stopped.  It maintains this strong central “English” core allowing universal understanding, but allows speakers to add their personal touch.   Viva la difference!

I welcome any comments and remarks.

Friday, June 24, 2011

His and Hers

Third person singular possessive pronouns, the fancy name for his and her, pose a tricky problem for many languages.  The crux is that both the possessors, i.e. he and she, and the nouns themselves have genders in most Western languages.  When the owner and noun are the identical sex, everything is fine.  The issue is when they are different.

For a change, English simplifies the issue.  Nouns have no gender, unless they are biologically male or female, which does not affect the grammar.  Therefore, his belongs to John and her belongs to Jane.  Russian does have grammatical gender, but it doesn’t affect the pronoun in this case.  Его [yevo] and ее [yeyo] are the Russian equivalents of Ivan's and Natasha's.

Hebrew takes the same route as Russian, i.e. one form for his and her regardless of gender, but often doubles the possessive: אישתו של יוסי.  This comes out as his wife of Yosi, in case you didn’t figure out that she is married to Yosi.  The most ambiguous, as usual, is French.  The masculine son and feminine sa refer to the gender of the noun, not the owners.  Son livre could belong to Jean or Jeanne.  If you have to make it clear, you need to say Son livre à elle to ensure that everybody understands Jeanne went to the bookstore.

Unless you live in a kibbutz where mine is mine and yours is mine, it is always reassuring to know what is his and what is hers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Sentence - Style versus Content

France and England are on opposite sides of the English Channel.  Aside from being technically democracies and sharing some language roots, they have traditionally been enemies and rivals, going different directions.  Being half French and half American, I appreciate each of their strengths.  I love to combine English efficiency and French joy of life.

One area in which their different approaches to life appears in the sentence, specifically what each culture values in its written expression.  French is a relatively homogenous language.  Its English root content is increasing, but not yet that significant in terms of written language.  Most words used in French are based on Latin-based, long-established French roots.  This means that French words have a similar "song" to them and carry common endings, such as e, ant, é, and ons.  This makes writing poetic language even in prose quite easy.  To put it simply, a writer has to work hard to write ugly sounding French.  In addition, French culture has always valued aesthetics in all aspects of life, whether it be food, clothing, or culture.  Quality equals style or, put in other words, no style means no quality.  However, there is a price for investing such energy into form:  content becomes less important.  My impression of modern French daily writing, such as newspaper and magazine articles, is that content has become almost irrelevant.  It is almost impossible to understand anything of what actually happened when reading a French newspaper or magazine, aside from my favorite Le Canard Enchainé ,of course.  France and the French language is the complete victory of style over substance.

By contrast, the English language has stolen freely and invented profusely words from all languages from all over the world.  There is no single pattern of emphasis or word building in English.  Often, it seems that the rule is the exception.  Moreover, the English speaking world, especially England and the United States, has historically admired deeds and distrusted intellectuals.  The Anglo-Saxon world is much interested in what you want to say than how you say it.  Time is money and money is extremely important.  This emphasis combined with the rich vocabulary available means that readers of English expect you to say something in a clear and efficient, but not necessarily elegant, manner.  Elegance in English takes great effort.  For example, George Orwell's writing is deceptively simple.   He must have expended great effort in polishing his prose.  Therefore, in contrast to the French language, substance defines good writing.

Ideally, writing should be both communicative and elegant, but it is hard to have both.

I am interested in any comments you may have in reaction.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Famous and Forgotten

There are many ways to have your name remembered generations after your death.  They include winning or losing a battle, founding a city, and leading your country.  The ideal would be, of course, to have those future generations remember exactly what your achievements were, but you cannot always have everything.

The English language does have words which are named after actual people.  Some of these words are so common that the person himself (no women in this list, but I am willing and happy to add one if you know of any woman words) has been mostly or completely forgotten.  Take Mr. Leotard, whose practical garment is worn by millions of dancers around the world.  Sadly, nobody even gives even a thought.  The following list shows eleven terms in English of not-so-famous people:

1.  Mesmerize
Mr. Mezmere
French personality who "hypnotized" his hosts
2.  Leotards
Mr. Leotard
Circus performer who needed garment that did not hinder him
3.  Quisling
Mr. Quisling
Norwegian leader who cooperated with the Nazis
4.  Crap
Sir Thomas Crapper
Inventor of flush toilet
5.  Real McCoy
Mr. McCoy
Prohibition era smuggler of (real) rum from Jamaica
6.  John Hancock
John Hancock
Signer of declaration of independence with a large signature
7.  Sandwich
Lunch food
Earl of Sandwich
Apparently, a noble who had trouble keeping staff
8.  Decibel
Sound measure
Alexander Graham Bell
Pioneer in the study of sound
9.  Pasteurize
Milk treatment
Louis Pasteur
Discovered source of milk contamination and how to prevent it
10. Cup of Joe
Admiral Joe
Banned alcohol for British sailors
11. Grog
Rum drink
Admiral Grog
Added water to the rum rations to British sailors

To paraphrase Shakespeare, is it better to have been remembered and then forgotten or not to have been remembered at all? 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Date Prepositions

When it comes to prepositions, words like in, for, at, etc, English is utterly unpredictable.  Based on my experience, it is impossible to teach phrasal verbs, verbs with prepositions, because there is no connection between the verb, preposition, and meaning.   While take in and take out might make sense, take over and take for can only be learnt by living in an English speaking country.  Even then, it often makes a difference which country that is, as in the case of pissed off.  In the United States, a person is angry while in the UK s/he is drunk. 

Nevertheless, some logic can be found, occasionally.  For example, the use of prepositions before dates (the numbers on the calendar, not the ones written on the calendar or eaten) follows clear rules:

In goes before any period of time, i.e. month or year: The final exams are in July.  The next Olympic Games are in 2012.

On goes before the date, i.e. the exact day: The first (unmanned) landing on the moon was on September 13, 1959.

By the way, English is not the only tricky language in terms of prepositional use.   Russian has two prepositions  на [na] and в [v] that roughly mean the same thing.  In some contexts, the difference is not subtle.  For example, when I began studying Russian, one of my fellow students wanted to say that the Empress was at her toilet, i.e. putting on makeup, surrounded by admirers.  He used the wrong preposition, creating the impression that she was on the toilet, surrounded by admirers.  My teacher's reaction was "Really?" (I imagine that even Catherine the Great preferred to pee in private.)

 I will now close up this blog, ending with hope that you can take in all those propositions and shutting off my computer.