28/07/2008

Asssorted Bits on the English Language

Contains mild profanity and a very cheap joke. If you're a native speaker, feel free to correct me on anything I got wrong in the comments section.

I

One of the reasons that English is The World Language must surely be that the basics are so easy to learn given that it has approximately no grammar. There are only two bits about English grammar that are hard.

1. Prepositions. If you think you can simply learn that German "an" means "at" in English and then use "at" whenever you would have used "an" in German, you are very much mistaken.

While we're talking about prepositions, is it really true that the reason given for not using a preposition as a sentence's last word is that it is a preposition? That sounds too stupid to be true, but I distinctly remember reading it somewhere.

2. Irregular verbs. Oh, I still remember the long afternoons I spended spent sitting on my arse trying to memorize these. One day we had a test on them, and our teacher had set it up in a pretty nasty way: You weren't given the first form of the word and then had to fill in the other two, no, you got a set of letters and then had to write down all the forms of the irregular verbs you could think of which started with that letter. (I wouldn't want to take that test today, but back then, I got 7/7. Did I mention the long afternoons?) Some people got the letter k, among others. "Remember", she said, "that there are some words that start with k, but you can't hear the k, like knife". Upon which someone submitted "knife, knofe, knifen".

II

A nice word I just learned: anecdata, didn't know that one. (The source is here, it also contains the rather jolly apercu "You can't reason a man out of a position he did not reason himself into". Some truth to that.)

III

My own anecdata strongly suggest that people from the Netherlands and Scandinavia speak much better English than Germans (holding education levels constant). Simple explanation: In those countries they rarely dub English-language TV series and films. Maybe Germany should outlaw dubbing for all films rated 12 and over, and soon we'll be an economic powerhouse again.

IV

Three things I learned in school about English that my later living in England (1997-98) suggested were complete bollocks:

1. The "e" sound in "men" is produced like the "i" sound in "tin". I seem to remember explicitly asking a native speaker about that and him saying that's nonsense.

2. When an English speaker refers to the future, he or she will always, always, either use "will" ("I will see the film tonight.") or "going to" ("I'm going to see the film tonight."). In my experience, the standard usage in spoken language is to use the present continuous ("I'm seeing the film tonight.")

3. When you meet someone, you say, "How do you do?", which is answered by "How do you do?". In my experience, the standard phrase is "How you doin'?", or, more formally, "How are you doin'?". Also widely in use: the simple "Hello!". I'll grant that "How do you do?" may still be in use in very formal contexts, but I don't think I ever heard it. I'd like to tell you an anecdote about how I arrived in England and addressed people, "How do you do?" and everybody started laughing, but I'd have to make that up.

V

A friend of mine once came up with the following theory: On average, people who were very interested in rock/pop music during their adolescence speak better English. That's because most of it is in English and there comes the day when you want to understand what they're actually singing. Until someone produces data to the contrary, I'm going to believe that.

VI

There used to be a classification of countries into first, second, and third world. The details of that classification may have been problematic, but in principle it was rather handy. Then some very smart people came and pointed out that there's actually only one world.

You don't say.

And what expression do we now use for The Countries Formerly Known as the Third World? The "developing countries". People, the problem with at least some of these countries is that they are not developing.

(By the way, exactly the same problem in German.)

VII

One of the many great aspects of the film Casablanca is that in that film, when person A introduces person B to person C, he (it's always a he) doesn't say, "May I introduce you to...", but rather, "May I present...". May I present, how cool is that? I demand that that becomes common usage again, tout de suite!

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, prepositions are just as hard going from English to German.
Before we went to Germany, my high school German teacher made a special point of instructing us that, while we might talk about our time "on the plane" in English, we should definitely not say "auf dem Flugzeug" when telling our host families about our transatlantic flights.

LemmusLemmus said...

Sure, this cuts both ways. But you shouldn't have worried too much about "auf dem Flugzeug". Although this literally means that you had been sitting on the roof of the plane, people would have understood what you mean, and people appreciate it when English speakers make the effort. I am not the only person who finds it quite annoying when English speakers in Germany will just assume people speak English instead of first asking. Remindful of how many Germans behave in the Netherlands.

J Thomas said...

In the USA, southerners pronounce pin and pen the same way, but yankees don't. It's a shibboleth.

Likely it's that way among two groups of british people too.

Pat & Bill said...

Have you ever considered Esperanto as the world language? Take a look at www.esperanto.net

Bill

Brian Barker said...

There is no doubt that we need to have a new global language.

It should be non-national and relatively easy to learn.

That is why Bill's comments hit the mark.

Interestingly nine British MP's have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.

You can see this at http://www.lernu.net

LemmusLemmus said...

J Thomas,

there are, of course, all kinds of dialects, but what you learn in German schools is supposed to be standard British English (what linguists call "received pronunciation") - roughly, how educated people in Southern England speak.

J Thomas said...

Well, for that particular rule you got the way educated people in southern america talk.

The first time I saw it wasn't that way for everybody was when I looked at GB Shaw's alphabet and they had two different symbols for something that for me was one sound.