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[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

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“It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.” (Ch.4, p.48)

Mother Tongue is as casual a history of the English language as it is an insightful study of how it becomes one of the most common-spoken languages in the world. Bryson begins with why English has easily invaded foreign cultures: the richness of its vocabulary, the flexibility of the language, and the simplicity in spelling and pronunciation, as English is devoid of any diacritical marks like umlauts and circumflexes. But English is not without its shortcomings. Although the consonants conform to a regular sound pattern, English spelling can be treacherous because for centuries after the Norman conquest in 11th century, English has been disparaged to a peasant language. Even in Shakespeare’s days the use of English for purposes of scholarship was only experimental. After all, without adaptability English could not have permitted Shakespeare to coin some 1,700 new words. Pliancy has made English easy to learn; but such versatility also made regulation of spelling difficult. Having been a second-rate tongue for peasants, proper spelling of English words had been disregarded in history. The changes attributable to such efforts had generally been few and frequently short-lived.

It would be a mistake to presume that English is widely spoken in the world because it has some overwhelming intrinsic appeals to foreigners. Most people speak it . . . because they need it to function in the world at large. (Ch.12, p.181)

Bryson applauds the vitality with which English has spread and evolved itself. He concurs that a system should lay down the ground rules of grammar that both native speakers and foreigners shall abide. That said, where there is proper usage that is conductive to good English, Bryson reminds us what makes good English or bad English is up to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. In this spirit of tolerance, he sees no valid objections to split infinitives (only because Latin doesn’t permit it?), to sentences ending in prepositions, or to the use of “hopefully” at the head of a sentence.

Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. But he does a good job presenting the evolution of the English language with a fizzle and pop. He writes with an exuberance and excitement about what English is capable of that is infectious and uplifting. Though it’s not a comprehensive history, it does drop in at key moment and point out some of the really interesting, weird, trivial tidbits. It surveys English’s vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations with style, flare and humor.

Penguin Books. Orange Series Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Thoughts on French

Many people traveling in France would share the frustrating experience that they are ignored speaking English. Although English has borrowed and adopted French words, the French language has not welcomed the invasion of English words. They have been more resistant than most. The French have had a low against the encroachment of foreign words since as early as 1911, but this was considerably bolstered by the setting up in 1975 the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language law, which introduced fines for using illegal anglicisms. You may safely conclude that the French take their language very seriously indeed.

No you won’t be fined for speaking English, but you won’t go very far either. In some of the old Paris dining establishments, especially the ones removed from the tourists’ tread, a hamburger is a steak haché (not le burger). A steak haché is made from minced beef, which is formed into patties ready for cooking and originates from France. Filet mignon generally refers to pork rather than beef. Some menus might provide a one-line English descriptions but don’t expect it to be the convention.

Estimates of the number of anglicisms in French have been estimated to be 2-3 percent or less. So it is altogether possible that the French are making a great deal out of very little. I suppose what really ranckles the French is not that they are borrowing so many words from the rest of the world but that the rest of the world is no longer borrowing so many from them. From the outset the government conceded defeat on a number of words that were too well established to drive out: gadget, holdup, weekend, blue jeans, self-service, and many others. They do recognize the global importance of English but prefer to speak French. But it’s a different case when it comes to relaxing at home in the evening.

But the English-speaking world can be better at looking after the borrowed words than the French were. Quite a number of words that English has absorbed no longer exist in France (at least not widely spoken). The French do not use nom de plume, double entendre, panache, bon viveur, or R.S.V.P. for répondez s’il vous plaît. Instead they write prière de répondre.

Thoughts on English Pronunciation and Spelling

In 9th grade, I had a “study skills” class that reviewed the basics of English grammar and honed writing skills. Mr. Twegbe emphasized correct grammar and perfect spelling. Every class began with a spelling quiz that comprised of five words. It’s not until I read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue that I realize no other language in the world has more words spelled the same way and yet pronounced differently. The one-to-one correspondence between sound and spelling does not hold true in English. Over a long period of time there is a tendency to compress and mangle words. Despite slip-ups and slurping, we are usually good at distinguishing between the most subtle gradations of sounds. Nut pronunciation does not often correspond to the spelling. Indeed spellings in English can be treacherous, and opportunities for flummoxing so abundant, that even the authorities themselves sometimes stumble. Is it millennium or millenium? Irresistable or irresistible? Despite anomalies, English language possesses three distinguishing features that offset its other shortcomings—the irregularity and anomaly Mr. Twegbe addressed. The consonants are fairly regular in their pronunciation, the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages—the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, etc.—and, above all, English preserves the spelling of borrowed words, so many people of many nations are immediately aware of the meanings of thousands of words which would be unrecognizable if written phonetically.

Reading “Mother Tongue”

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Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is funny and informative. He explains how English is a global language, more flexible and versatile athan any other languages because despite many booby traps of the language, English still has some of the simplest spellings and pronunciation.

He starts with a couple of chapters about language in general and how it may have arisen. Inevitably this has to be a sketchy account, but good enough for general reading. His real subject is English, and here he produces a large number of facts that will surprise even native speakers of the language. For example, did you know that among the new words that Shakespeare introduced to the language include: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, pendant, and some 1700 others?

Bryson reassures us not to worry about American English and English English are drifting apart so remorselessly that one day the two nations may not be able to understand each other at all. But if Briton and American of the future baffle each other, it seems altogether likely that they won’t confuse many others—not, at least, if the rest of the world continues expropriating words and phrases at its present rate. The Germans talk about ein Image Problem and das CashFlow, Italians program their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refuelling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku. For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages.

Polite and Honoific Form in Japanese Language

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A passage from Kawabata’s elegiac Beauty and Sadness reminds me of the ordeal of learning honorific form in Japanese language class:

She was taunting him again. Oki came from the western part of Japan, and had never really mastered Tokyo polite speech; Fumiko, however, had been brought up in Tokyo, so he often asked her help with it. Yet he did not always accept what she told him. A tenacious argument would turn into an endless squabble, and he would declare that Tokyo speech was only a vulgar dialect with a shallow tradition. In Kyoto or Osaka, he would insist, even ordinary gossip was usually very polite, quite unlike Tokyo gossip. All sorts of things—mountains and rivers, houses, streets, heavenly bodies, even fish and vegetables—were referred to with polite expressions. (Strands of Black Hair)

Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Since most relationships are not (considered) equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including position within the family, position within an organization, job, age, experience, or even psychological state (for example, a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. Polite forms are used for new acquaintances, then discontinued as a relationship becomes more intimate, regardless of age, social class, or gender. Polite forms are also used to make a distinction between in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One of the complexities of the inside-outside relationship is that groups are not static; they overlap and change over time and according to situation. This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom.

French Step by Step

Since completion of French 1 at l’Alliance Française last fall, I haven’t been able to schedule the subsequent course due to scheduling conflicts. Business and leisure trips conflicted with the spring term. In addition to reviewing course materials from French 1, I’ve been reading and studying the book called French Step by Step by Charles Berlitz.

I picked this one because Berlitz is a linguist. I don’t particularly care for this book as an instructional book. However, it is an excellent way to figure out how to translate from English to French. I used this book by covering up the French sentence and the phonetic sentence so only the English sentence showed and then translated it into French. It is excellent for what it is written to do: teaching the everyday language that you need in order to make yourself understood in France. When I was in France last summer, I was speaking the phrase book French that sounded stupid, even though the French people appreciated my effort. The whole purpose of enrolling in French course with l’Alliance Française was to seriously engage in learning the language. French Step by Step is a nice supplement to class because it teaches real French expressions. The book has 26 chapters and 24 conversations. Every chapter is a few conversations, with a translation, and an explanation of new grammar point. It introduces a few thousand words, and almost every tense including the subjunctive. Each sentence is written three times, one in French, one in phonetics, and one in English.