Friday, June 26, 2015

Ways with Words

Languages fascinate me: the differences in their grammar, the way they change over time, the nuances and complexity of them. I speak and read three, know snippets of many more, and even write informally in a couple of them, but English—in all its glorious craziness—is, for better or worse, my first and foremost, my birthright. So when I stumbled across Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way on sale for Kindle at $1.99 (it still is, by the way, although I don’t know for how long), my perennial if ever-shaky resolution to keep my book budget under control took another hit.

Indeed, the book is a gem. More anecdotal than scholarly, full of the kind of declarations that make academics sharpen their pens to point out the many instances that don’t fit the generalizations, but for those very reasons a huge amount of fun. It’s true that I knew most of the big points already, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment one bit.

Some snippets of information were truer than I might have imagined: that English has a huge vocabulary I knew; that the revised Oxford English Dictionary lists 615,000 words, which don’t include many technical and scientific terms, was a higher total than I would have guessed. Other arguments I disagree with: English grammar is complex and its spelling simple? Tell that to the student facing an exam in Russian. When I began taking Russian in high school, people assumed the alphabet would be difficult to learn. But the alphabet is a snap: many of the letters look like Latin or Greek; the handful that don’t are easily memorized; and the whole thing is phonetic, with a few minor and regular variations. Figuring out where the accent falls is a bit of a challenge, since English speakers rarely get it right: it’s Ba-REES, not BO-ris; Vlad-EE-mir, not VLAD-imir; Ee-VAN, not EYE-van, and so on. But the sounds are right there in front of you, ready to speak.

The grammar, though, makes English look like a walk in the park (this may be in part because as a native, I have trouble explaining the difference between a pluperfect and a subjunctive, but I instinctively know when to use articles and the difference between “I went” and “I was going”). Three genders, assigned more or less arbitrarily; six cases, which have clear uses but many not so clear; two forms for every verb, including sixteen verbs of motion, used in ways that at times seem to be quite opposite to their English counterparts; and, in addition to singular and plural, relics of the old dual number, now sometimes confusingly extended to three and four, where it appears to be either an irregular plural or genitive singular, although it is nothing of the kind—next to all that, the difference between “I go to the bank on Tuesdays” and “I am going to the bank right now” pales by comparison.

English spelling and pronunciation, in contrast, routinely trip up people who have gone through the entire public school system, college, and even graduate school.  They trip up editors, as I discovered when I took Bryson’s “test.” They trip up computers, which can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re, never mind which belongs where in “They’re going to take their car there.” Certainly, Welsh and Irish (any of their Celtic cousins, in fact) look more confusing still, but that doesn’t make English spelling or pronunciation easy to master.

But enough quibbles. Whether you agree with every sentence or not, Bryson’s book is a wonderfully written exploration of our free-wheeling mother tongue—its origins, its development, its place in the modern world (and the forms it is evolving into), and its tendency, as the cliché goes, to lurk in dark alleys, where it assaults other languages and rifles their pockets for loose words.


On another note, most of the Five Directions Press authors are taking part in an Independents’ Day Book Fair on July 2, 2015. More on that next week. Meanwhile, you can find the full information at our website. We’ll be selling books at a discount and will autograph them on the spot if you request. We will also have free bookmarks as mementos. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hello!

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