Thursday, February 9, 2012

On the Various Failures and Illogicalities of the English Language;Or, Logic Applied at last to the Mother-Tongue!

 Irrationalities exposed.--Root words Examined.--The Differences between Albion and Columbia.--The New Small-talk.

English can be annoying. Lack of words when you need them, an overabundance of words when you don't, random spelling and grammatical quirks, differences of spelling, pronunciation, and terminology between the American and British dialects...the list goes on. (On, and just in case you missed the sign coming in: Alex Adrian. Diary of an Atomic Man.) So, this week--and incidentally, in the first Wednesday post in awhile--we'll take a look at the improbabilities and illogicalities of English, differences between American and British English, and spell-check.

First, some history of the language. English in the modern form is one of the younger and possibly the most heavily-borrowing of the major languages. This may have something to do with the origins of the tongue; as the joke goes, it was the result of, quote "Norman armsmen fucking Anglo-Saxon barmaids", close quote. In all seriousness, though, English is a hybrid, motley tongue, comprised at base of Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, French(mostly loanwords), Latin (ditto), Dutch (you're starting to see my point about loanwords, right...?), Welsh (according to John McWhorter's terrific Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and mostly grammatical), and various others. As you probably noticed from the parenthetical notes, one thing English does ridiculously well is pick up loanwords; the languages cited above are but a fraction, a mere fraction, of the languages English has begged, borrowed, or stole words from. (perennial exception: Finnish, which is a pity because it looks and sounds awesome.) This is all well and good, but a in-depth examination will have to come later. One thing that's been annoying me recently is word origins. Take, for example, the word "pretty". By way of analog with witty and gritty, and wit and grit there must have  been--perhaps in Englisc, or Old English--a noun form "pret"; would those Anglo-Saxons have referred to a now-extinct quality we Men of later days call prettiness? And, moreover, will the same fate happen to the other two words? We speak of being overwhelmed and underwhelmed; presumably there's some way of being "whelmed",  the exact right amount of emotional impact. The English "Hell" seems obviously derived from the Norse "Hel", the Viking death-goddess--but where in the Nine Worlds is "heck" derived from? I learned fairly recently that "darn" is an extreme modification of "eternal damnation", and is thus related to damn etymologically, but still: enough to keep a guy up at night thinking. Now, so far in this post, Jarte's spell-check hasn't recognized, in order, armsmen, fucking, McWhorter's, Englisc, pret, underwhelmed,(though 'whelmed' itself raised no flags, which gives me hope) Hel, and "Jarte's" itself. I've added all of these in due time, but it draws this to my next point: the eventual conquest and replacement of all life on Earth by our benevolent robot overl--er, I mean spell-check.
Spell-check is useful but annoying, like a grandmother who considers you her pride and joy but insists on babying you even though you're twenty-one and moved out of your parents' house, semi-gainfully employed, and generally no longer three and making a mess in your diapers. While it may prove useful if, for instance, you're one prone to misspelling words, and I've actually had some moments--a few on this very post--wherein it saved my bacon, but all in all it just sticks in my craw: I can spell well enough and generally catch my mistakes, it gives homophones a free pass--not a problem for me, but common enough that my English teachers go over it repeatedly at the beginning of the term--and as for new words...hooo-boy. One of the unsung joys of being a science-fiction/fantasy writer is making up new words to describe concepts that you invented by the time-honored method of ramming two or three words together to creating a new one, or making up words for your new alien species' language; generally, SF/F writers get to play with the language a bit--or a lot--more than "literary", thriller, or romance authors, one of the pleasures of the genres. Spell-check pointedly refuses to acknowledge 'em, natch, even though some, like "Terran" have been in use for decades. By the way, natch apparently isn't a word, although I use it a lot. Similarly certain words of relatively recent vintage, such as "webcomic/webcomics" and "polyamory" and its conjugations--"polyamorous" ,"polyamorist"--are obviously not real words and must be treated accordingly. (While the MS Word spell-check is relatively limited insofar as polyamory is concerned, offering up only "polyandry"--which I guess might be considered a form of polyamory, though most poly advocates seek to distance themselves from Mormon polygamists...different post, Alex; different post--and "polymer"--which is something rather different-- the Jarte checker is more...diversified, bringing Polymorph--yes, as in the D&D spell--into the equation.) It also considers "non-standard" contractions, which I use a lot of, most names, their various plurals and possessives, and British spellings of words to be anathema, which  I find annoying. On that note, let's press on to our next--and, I swear to God, Zeus, Odin, Thor, Shiva, and Queztalcoatl, last--topic tonight.

American versus British (and Canadian!)

...English, that is. (Which reminds me of this idea for a T-shirt I've got: You know those t-shirts that say, "This is America, now speak English or get out of the country"? The ones that make sure to tell people that you're a douche and/or redneck? Like that, only instead of "English", it's "Esperanto". Two versions of that one:one in English, and another in Esperanto. And I've other ideas along that line: Lojban, Ido, Sindarin[okay, probably--no, definitely--"Middle-Earth" for that one], Klingon, German, French Canadian... and a whole lot of others. Anyway...) The sheer number of differences between BrE and AmE, as those froods hoopy enough to study these kinds of things say and write, boggles the mind; it truly does. Let's start with terminology, since that's the most obvious one. While both an American and a Brit enjoy a game of football, what they're referring to in either case can differ quite shockingly, for what is called "football" in the UK is what an American would call "soccer".(For the record, soccer is a corruption of a contraction: originally the full term was--and still is, technically--association football, a reference to the early governing body; being played primarily by upper-class Britons originally lead to it being called "socca", and I like to think that the present-day American name comes from some overzealous, hypercorrecting American journalist exactly phonetically transcribing the popular name. Anyway...) What would be a "truck" to an American is a "lorry" to  an Englishman, and while in the States you fill that truck's tank up with gasoline or gas, the same thing across the Atlantic is accomplished with petrol. If you're tabling something, God help if you've just switched continents: in Britain to table (or "boulder" should no tables be available due to your sleeper ship, containing all the middle managers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers of the planet Gogalfrincham, has just crashed on prehistoric Earth, in which case you've more problems then just the lack of tables.) is to open a subject to discussion; the American meaning is to close the topic:i.e."So I guess we'll table this for now/we'll put this thing to bed/WHEN I BASH YOUR HEAD OPEN" in the Jonathon Coulton song "re:Your Brains". Something's wrong under the bonnet of your Ford Prefect, versus problems under the hood of your new Taurus. When parking cars, is one doing it in a car park or a parking lot? Is something to be spun anti- or counter-clockwise so as to loosen it? I could go on, but there's just so much. There is, of course, the slang meaning of rubber--a condom in America, an eraser in England. And spelling...! Spelling is where the three dialects diverge into severe linguistic shift-things. Okay...keep your head about you, cos this gets really messy really fast. Firstly, -or/-our. Is it honor or honour? Color or colour? Favor or favour? And on and on. How to spell certain words that end with the er sound? Theater/theatre, somber/sombre (I prefer the latter), specter/spectre (ditto), etc. If it's emphasize versus emphasise (for instance)...well, the US is unique here too: Canada is solidly Commonwealth on the question. (or is that query? Ah, never mind.) The periodic table can get confusing: is element number 137 (Cs) cesium or caesium? My family inadvertently convinced me to start spelling aluminum aluminium several months ago; I kept with it on a "fun-to-say" basis. Gray/grey is another matter entirely; the lines between the two usages are much blurrier there and Grey is an entirely acceptable surname Stateside. How do I swing, you ask? Answer: it varies. As noted above, I go with the British spellings on words that, in AmE, are spelt -er, and use aluminium rather than aluminum. Grammatically, I prefer to excise got in sentences where they make just as much sense without it: "I've a lovely bunch of coconuts", f'rex, or "I've the blasted documents. Where d'you want me to put them?"; I also move the contraction point in negative sentences further up than most Americans:i.e."We've not yet breached the damned perimeter!" or "He's not yet fought the hardest battle." I also spell grey with an e, as gray is an American perversion that has no place in proper spelling. And--on a topic I missed in this post--I err the side of two L's; regardless of dialect, one L alone looks lonely and cold to me, desperately in need of a hug, some kind of hot drink--coffee or tea, perhaps, or hot coca--and a friend. I use "arse" over "ass" when discussing the buttocks, although I use "ass" in the context of donkeys, someone making an ass out of themselves, and as in badass.
Those of you interested in further exploring this topic I refer to the relevant Wikipedia pages. It's really a fascinating topic, and I want to explore it further.

This post written partially whilst in the nude
--Alex Adrian, twilight hours of 2/8/12 and 2/9/12

1 comment:

  1. A tour de force, if I may borrow from the French.