Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Naturally Exceptional English

Learning a foreign grammar mirrors our experience growing up.  First, we are told that there are rules of correct behavior.  Then, we discover that some people don’t have to follow them.  Similarly, students learn verb conjugation tables – er, ir, re in French, the famous binyanim in Hebrew, to name a few, and then continually run into verbs that do not exactly follow those rules.  Like the confused child, the learner gets the impression that the rules were a big lie.
The first logical question concerns the reason for the very existence of these exceptions.  The obvious but true answer is that because they were always there.  Native speakers, even today, learn most of their grammar through listening and imitating, not formal study.  Most first language native speakers cannot explain their choice of verb tense logically, knowing what is correct by what sounds “good.”  In other words, it is correct if we are used to it, not if it follows some academic rule.  On the other hand, if people rarely use and hear a given verb, rendering them unsure of the correct form, they will go with the general rule.  For example, the past simple in English is made by adding ed to a word.  Therefore, when unsure, about a form, the speakers generally follows the rule or looks for a similarly sounding  known verb.  So, while it is clear to Americans and Brits that the past of sit is sat, most speakers would say that the past of shit is shitted, although the phonetic similarity would lead some to say shat.
In practice, this means that the verbs people use regularly have a nasty tendency to remain irregular.  Speakers who say “I goed” are corrected even though the conjugation clearly follows the formal rule.  On the other hand, confusing exceptions such as lie (lay, laid) and lay (laid, lain) are often mistaken (except by English teachers, of course) without causing undue comment.  Therefore, the key to irregularity is use.
An example of an exception proviing a rule is Hebrew.  Hebrew was basically static for some two centuries.  This period allowed scholars to devise rules to explain almost all exceptions.  This structure, called binyanim effectively organizes all Hebrew verbs.  Most languages, especially English, have never had such a period to allow the scholars to catch up with actual use.
A deeper explanation of why English grammar in particular has so many exceptions will be the subject of another post.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sporty Shibboleths

An example of a Hebrew root in English, a shibboleth is a word that only natives can say properly and thus identify themselves as friend and not an enemy.  Examples of shibboleths include the pronunciations of the words coax and Williamette (river).  Electrical people say co-ax, not coax while Oregonians say wil-lam-it, with accent on the second syllable.  On a practical note, during the Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers asked questions about baseball to discover which of the MP’s were actually dressed up German soldiers.  For these Germans, a simple question about who played center field for the Yankees proved that they were imposters, just as in the biblical story of saying the word shibboleth.
In fact, the understanding and appreciation of a certain sport is a cultural portal never passed by many immigrants even after decades of residence in a country.  These sports include baseball in America and Japan primarily, cricket in England and its colonies, petanque in France, sumo wrestling in Japan, and biathlon in the Scandinavian countries, to name a few.
Not all sports are so localized.  Football, soccer in America, has taken root everywhere.  It is hard to find a country that does not have a national football team, however incompetent.  American football shares enough with its distant cousins, rugby and Aussie football, to be understood by a wide variety of people.  Also, its basic attraction, crude violence, is universally appreciated.  The relatively simple rules of basketball as well as its ability to be played by people of all ages have made that sport a successful import to most countries. 
The telling sign of a sport-culture shibboleth is the demographics of its avid spectators.  Looking over a crowd of 50,000 people at a U.S. baseball game or U.K. cricket match, it would be safe to assume that vast majority of the people grew up in that country or another country where the game was played.  The number of late converts is probably extremely limited.  They have better things to do with their time, which means that they are simply not completely native.  That is the magic of a shibboleth.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Dear Sir or Madam

Modern informality may have made people closer, but it has certainly created gender confusion.  In the past, a person’s title in English included the obligatory Mr., Mrs, or Miss.  Also, before the days of the Internet, ordinary citizens didn’t correspond with people living in places across the ocean and having interesting stamps.  So, for the few people and few occasions when a writer had to address a correspondence to distant location, it was clear whether the respondent was male or female.
Today, we have created a global village of people addressing each other by their first name or at best by the first and last name, without title.  Granted, the vast majority of names are clearly male or female in any language.  Some languages make it easier by adding feminine endings to male names: Stephen / Stephanie in English; Jean / Jeanette in French; Joseph / Josepha in Hebrew; Yevgeni / Yevgenia in Russian.  Knowing the rules often give the writer a solid basis to know whether to use the masculine or feminine forms of words when such a distinction must be made.
However, it is often not quite so simple.  Sometimes, the writer is not familiar with the writer’s culture and does not know if the name is for boys or girls.  Even worse, some names, such as Billie in English and Tal in Hebrew can go both ways.  The worse situation is a name of a writer whose first name is only an initial, i.e. A G. Alexander.
One solution is to use Google pictures searching for the name in question.  If 95% of the pictures indicate a specific gender, it is safe to assume to make an assumption.  You could be wrong, but the person will probably understand.  Just recall that Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue. Of course, it is always possible, albeit a bit clumsy, to ask the correspondent with words to the effect: I apologize for any embarrassment, but would you mind telling me if you are a man or women.  The last option, granted a bit formal, is to write Dear Sir or Madam at the top of the letter and hope they understand.
Alas, those were the good old days….