English is a Funny Language
I’ve been fascinated with words since childhood. Maybe it’s the Irish as I love silly puns and doggerel verses, and taking big words apart with sometimes hilarious results. Take embarrassing— maybe it becomes em-bare a$$ing?? (The process or uncovering one’s posterior!) Anyway I discovered early on what a strange beast is our mother tongue. English is classified as a Germanic language but it has drifted far from those old Deutsche roots.
For one thing, as a long ago English teacher proclaimed, it is a portmanteau language. By the way that is a French word for what many of us might call a suitcase or similar piece of luggage. People came from many places –as the Anglo Saxons did from mainland Europe to bring the Germanic into the Celtic or pre-Celtic tongues of the earlier
British Isles. Maybe even those
folks came from elsewhere. But many ethnic groups came to England and on to the bringing their special words and
idioms in their luggage, so to speak. US
Thus English has a lot of different words for essential the same things and also words that have numerous meanings as well. We have synonyms and homonyms –the first being words that are very similar in meaning and the latter words that have the same sound but different meanings.
A case in point. If we packed a piece of luggage for a trip we might call it a suitcase, a valise, a portmanteau, a carpet bag, a carry-on or, if we were railroaders, a grip. Also a duffle bag, a gym bag, a carry-all, a sea-bag or any number of other terms.
And for an example of words with varied meanings, I will tell a little story on myself. I must have been about five at the time when my parents and I drove out to visit three aunts who has settled in southern
and become school teachers there. Aunt Ruth, just older than dad, was quite the
fashionista and still fancied herself a “southern belle” with as many shoes as
Imelda Marcos and stylish dresses to match. Appropriately she taught art and
drama. She was both artsy and a drama queen. California
Anyway we were fixing up to go somewhere and I was dressed up as was everyone else. I watched with interest as Aunt Ruth did her makeup and hair. Then she turned to me and said, “Here, Gaye. Let me put some toilet water on you too so you’ll smell as pretty as you look,”
I let out a piercing shriek and ran to hide behind Mama. “No, no,” I wailed. “No toilet water.”
It took a few minutes for Mama to calm me down enough so she could explain that this was not liquid out of the commode but something like cologne or perfume. I do not recall now if I finally permitted the anointing or not, but I had learned another example of the quirks of the English language!
Not only do we add words and meanings, we even change the purpose and the part of speech of many words. The sixties were known for using several familiar four letter words that once got mouths washed out with soap as nouns, verbs, adverbs and almost anything else. A professor from
did a great monologue on the infamous “f’ word to illustrate this. India
Another case, once ‘rock’ denoted a stone, either a common garden variety one or perhaps a large and flashy gem such as a big diamond. Then it became a genre of popular music and most recently it has morphed into a verb as in this celebrity rocked her risqué designer gown, or that athlete rocks his or her game and so on.
So English continues to evolve and change, chameleon like, over time. It is a living language so this is inevitable. Latin, for example, is not and other than having a few modern ideas and concepts ‘latiinized’ to use in those Catholic homilies and perhaps prayers that are still offerd in the traditional language instead of the local ethnic tongue, it has changed little since Caesar’s day. Vini, vidi, vici is still the same.
I guess we would not want our English—be it American, Canadian, Australian or the Queen’s back in Merry Olde to be dead, would we? But old fuddy-duddy folks like me do get frustrated at times to see the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Stevenson, Churchill and even Hemingway devolve to R-U Red-E? and other current slang and texting usage. Oh, I can text to my kids and grandkids and use a little of “that stuff” but I still prefer the old time rule-guided English I learned a half century ago as I suffered through diagramming sentences on the blackboard and the proper tenses and other rituals.
They say you have to know the rules to break them. As I writer I hope I know when to follow religiously and when to free-wheel it a bit. Contractions and even vernacular or colloquialisms are useful to form realistic dialogue. One can have fun with slang, regional usage and dialects as well. Yet normal prose should mostly be correct.
One more odd thing is the fact I learned more English in Spanish classes than I did in about sixteen years of formal English classes! Some of those complex and exotic verb tenses, the feminine and masculine nouns, and the like are examples. Spanish has a unique form for almost any sort of verb usage such as the past and future conditional. We might have to say something like, “If it had rained today, he would have gotten wet if he had not remembered to bring an umbrella.” Spanish has one word to cover each of those mights and woulds and ifs. Much cleaner and more direct! I think this tends to be a romance language—meaning based on Latin and not referring to love!—trait because German can be very complex and involved not only in tense but in other verbal matters.
I’m not too familiar with some of the world’s other linguistic families such as the various Oriental tongues, those from Africa and Micronesia or the aboriginal Australian speech but I am sure we could pack and bring home useful tools from learning any of these. Some already have slipped in such as “monsoon” for summer rainy season and “haboob” for dust storms—even if ours are but scaled down versions of those phenomena in their native places. Who knows what will come next?