No, I’m not speaking English wrong (some musings on the English language)

For some reason in the last week I’ve come across a couple of musings on the English language.  One was from my husband, though, and considering we talk a lot and in depth about all kinds of geeky topics like linguistics frequently, this is not altogether surprising.

The other was a facebook post, one of those things that make ‘keen’ observations on the English language.  It’s rather long, so I’ll post a couple of highlights:

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.

2) The farm was used to produce produce.

3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse. …

 

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France . Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

 

I feel compelled to reply.  I’m a linguist of sorts–I’ve spent a lot of time studying different languages and making connections.  I’ve also taught linguistics (one of my favorite classes to teach *ever*) but have had relatively few opportunities to actually take linguistics courses–I’ve had three from high school through to a Master’s Degree.  Sometimes I think I would pick colleges differently and try to major in linguistics, but at the moment I shall have to remain self taught.  Of course, that doesn’t prevent me from itching to wade in on issues of language.

Like this post on Facebook.  Such ‘observations’ are something of a bugbear of mine, because they only seem to say ‘Haha!  Isn’t English wacky and possibly stupid?’  But it’s not.  English is fascinating because it’s such a mongrel language which has had such varied and heavy influences in barely more than a millennium of existence.  What’s more interesting to me than the questions are the answers.  For instance, hamburgers aren’t meant to have ham in them.  The term is a reference to the German city of Hamburg.  He goes on to observe plurals: ‘If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? ‘  A lot of it has to do with the etymology of the word.  Index came into Middle English from Latin, and pluralizing it has a lot to do with how the word would be pluralized in Latin.  He laughs at more paradoxes by saying ‘English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? ‘  That may seem insane, except…play is an Old English word, while recite is Middle English, coming from (you guessed it) Latin.  It’s not insane, it’s a question of different language influences.  That’s why the words for meats in English are rarely related to the animal they come from: pig/ pork, cow/ beef–pig and cow are Old English words, used by the lower class Anglo-Saxon farmers while the meats were then in turn eaten by the Norman (i.e. French speaking) lords in the middle ages.  It’s easy to see the French influence when ‘porc’ is French for pork and ‘boeuf’ for beef, and pronounced almost identically.

English isn’t insane or without logic, it’s a beautiful and deeply complex language which owes much to the many cultural influences on both culture and language.  That’s why I have a couple of observations to add.  Namely:

British English isn’t the ‘right’ English.

I cannot even begin to say how many people laugh at me saying ‘tom-ay-to’, or claim I’m either pronouncing or saying English ‘wrong’ since I’ve lived here.  My husband’s grandmother yelled at me for calling my future child my ‘kid’ but then she uses the regional word ‘babby’ instead of ‘baby’.  English people seem to think exerting their cultural dominance over Americans or other ‘colonists’ is absolutely hilarious, but I’ll admit–it kind of grates on my nerves.  I chuckled when Henry Higgins spoke-sung ‘In America, they haven’t spoken [English] for years’ because I thought he was just so over the top.  But he’s not.  And every time I hear it I get annoyed because a) I have spent most of my career learning how to craft and manipulate the English language, and am annoyed at the implication that I can’t speak it properly and b)…

There really isn’t such a thing as proper English.

In linguistics, there’s the idea that grammar can be prescriptive, that is to say a set of rules that everyone must follow to speak a language correctly, and an idea that there is a single right form of a language.  Alternatively grammar can be descriptive, meaning the rules of grammar come from observation of the habitual uses of the speakers, and thus is a very malleable, changeable thing.  

An example of prescriptive grammar is the idea that you can never end a sentence in a preposition.  That rule comes from Latin, in which it’s impossible to end a sentence in a preposition.  But English is not Latin, and we’re centuries past the days when Latin and English had such a heavy relationship.  And English is structurally a Germanic language.  But most of all, it’s just irritating when people correct you in a superior tone for saying ‘What did you step on?’ with ‘On what did you step?’

Prescriptive grammar notes the habitual ‘be’ in Black American English, as in ‘She be shopping’ to imply that it’s something she does often.  It notes the use of ‘like’ as not only a prescriptive word but a placeholder in spoken language, much like ‘euhh’ in French while the speaker thinks of something to say.  I like it because it celebrates the rich tapestry of a language in trying to describe it.  Descriptive grammar is kind of elitist, in my humble opinion, and saying British English is right and American English is somehow lesser diminishes the use of the language on both sides of the ocean, especially when you consider it’s pretty incredible that after nearly three centuries the English language is mutually intelligible around the world.  That said:

Text speak is still pretty annoying, and won’t take over.

I have an issue with text speak, not because it’s ‘wrong’ but because in my personal opinion, it’s destructive to language and writing and the key point of both–communication.  Text speak seems to make language purposefully unintelligible by completely changing the way things are written, and while it may be shorter it is not necessarily clearer.  We are soon going to need a Rosetta Stone to translate text speak.  I’m not saying text speak doesn’t have its uses, but that those uses aren’t universal, and we still need a standard way of writing to make language clear, such as in cases of words that are spelled the same but rely on context for meaning (see above) or more complicated thoughts and vocabulary words.

Thus endeth my rant, which is rather wordy–my apologies.  

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2 thoughts on “No, I’m not speaking English wrong (some musings on the English language)

  1. I think in your second-to-last paragraph you switched around “prescriptive” and “descriptive.” Unless you really do think descriptive grammar is elitist, but I imagine you meant it the other way around. Anyway, as I’m sure you know, I’m pretty much with you on all this.

  2. Yes, I did…it would be hard to think descriptive grammar is elitist. I just get easily confused using the same words over and over. 😛 I will change it when I’m not feeling lazy. 😉

    I wonder whether the emoticons lessen or strengthen my language rant.

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