Are you tired of politics? Do you want to take a break from socio-political commentary? Me too.
So today, let’s venture into a completely unrelated field: orthography – the structuring and ordering of our language. I have an amateur interest in etymology and orthography. (Translation: I like reading about it, but I’m too lazy to do any research or actual work on the subject.)
English is a funny language. There are endless ways to mess it up, and yet it’s astoundingly flexible. As author Bill Bryson put in his excellent book “The Mother Tongue,” “English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.”
Bryson gives some examples of mangled English: “Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: ‘The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.’ Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.'”
We may chuckle at the jumbled verbiage of these foreign announcements, but here’s the thing: We understand what they’re saying. That’s how amazing English is. We can butcher it mercilessly, yet it still communicates effectively. To an extent, all languages are like this. English just has richer opportunities to mess up.
When I was studying French back in high school, I was relieved to learn every expression of affirmation (termed a “tag question”) was a simple, single phrase: “N’est-ce pas?” In English, however, every tag question differs depending on the preceding statement: “Isn’t it?” “Aren’t you?” “Haven’t they?” “Wouldn’t it?” “Don’t they?” – and so on through dozens of variations.
This alone must drive non-native English speakers nuts. Imagine trying to teach just the different expressions of affirmation in a classroom setting in, say, China.
And how comical does it sound to the ears of English-speakers when those tag questions get mixed up: “It’s a beautiful morning, wouldn’t it?”
Consider another absurd diktat of the English language: ending a sentence with a preposition (in, at, to, for, etc.). Accordingly to Grammarly, “Grammar snobs love to tell anyone who will listen: You should NEVER end a sentence with a preposition! Luckily for those poor, persecuted prepositions, that just isn’t true.” Grammarly then gives a few preposition guidelines, often distinguishing between formal and casual statements.
This decree of never ending a sentence with a preposition is left over from the days when Latin ruled Europe. Latin was considered the purest (and most admirable) language at the time modern English was establishing itself, though imposing Latin rules on English structure is a little like trying to crochet a scarf with a pry bar. Because ending a sentence with a preposition is impossible in Latin, somehow that carried over into English, resulting in the contorted statement famously attributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the kind of thing up with which we shall not put!”
(Incidentally, the same Latin mandate is why it’s considered improper to split an infinitive, the most well-known example of which is found in “Star Trek’s” original opening: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Splitting an infinitive is impossible in Latin, but it’s easily done – or should that be “easily it’s done”? – in English. But I digress.)
One of the reasons modern English is so odd is because it’s a mishmash of influences – notably Old German (and its derivatives) and Latin, but with enormous contributions from French (a Latin derivative), Celtic and endless other contributions. English took on not just vocabulary words from other languages, but also syntax and structure. As one reader put it, “English doesn’t just borrow words from other languages; it chases them down dark alleys and mugs them.”
Today we unthinkingly use words as far-flung as Icelandic (“saga”), Indonesian (“guru”) and Polynesian (“taboo”). Amazing, n’est-ce pas?
Anyway, this little excursion into orthography is to introduce a fascinating article I came across entitled “This is the most bizarre grammar rule you probably never heard of.” (Oooh, ending a sentence with a preposition!)
Again when I was learning French, there were rules about the grouping of adjectives around a noun. You couldn’t say “a pretty yellow dress” (“une jolie jaune robe”); you had to say “a pretty dress yellow” (“une jolie robe jaune”). To native French speakers, it’s just the natural way to order adjectives.
I literally never (or should that be “Literally I never”) gave this a moment’s thought, but the same thing occurs in English. Who knew?
Native English speakers instinctively order adjectives preceding a noun as follows: Opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose. This order of adjectives is spelled out in a book by Mark Forsyth entitled ” The Elements of Eloquence.” Forsyth gives an example of describing a knife: “A lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.”
(Illustrating that the English language is seldom cut and dried, the Cambridge Dictionary offers a list of 10 types of adjectives in a slightly different order: Opinion-size-physical quality-shape-age-color-origin-material-type-purpose. Thus the same description of a knife would be “a lovely little rectangular old green French silver whittling knife.”)
This blew me away when I read it because it’s true. Mess with that order, and the result is a word salad: A “whittling green little French lovely rectangular silver old knife.” Phew. A lot to take in, n’est-ce pas? (Now imagine trying to teach that tenet in, say, a Chinese classroom.)
The interesting thing about grammar is I don’t understand it at all. My eyes glaze over whenever someone delves into its intricacies. I attended high school in the late ’70s when grammar was being phased out in favor of more politically correct subjects, so my grasp is tenuous at best and purely instinctive (instinctual?). I am forever making blunders … though that hasn’t stopped me from becoming a writer.
But I find linguistics and etymology – including the origin of English – fascinating … even if I do regularly mangle the details. Or regularly do mangle the details. Whatever.
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