Okay, so that’s not really news to anyone, but if you study it in detail, you start to discover just how weird. To borrow a quote: “English is not a language, it’s three languages wearing a trench coat pretending to be one.” – Gugulethu Mhlungu
According to articles and studies I’ve been reading lately, English pulls about 82% of its vocabulary and most of its structures from Latin, French, and earlier Germanic Languages (Old English, Old Norse, etc). The rest comes from Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and a whole lot of things that are based on language of origin for trade goods (coffee comes from Arabic via Dutch, for example).
To painfully extend the analogy, English also goes through other languages’ pockets looking for random nouns and popular participles.
Right now, I’m studying towards a TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certification. The first big piece of that is understanding grammar. Now, as a voracious reader for most of my life and a long-term writer, I feel like I’ve got a good understanding of my native language. And I do, but up until know it’s been at least a partially intuitive understanding. Sure, like everyone else, I learned the grammar basics in grade school, and it was drilled into me so hard that I retain at least some of those basics even know, but aside from that being a long time ago, it really was only the basics. The structure of English is a lot more complicated than most of us even want to think about.
- I know there’s a bunch of different kinds of pronouns and how to use them because I’ve been doing it for almost fifty years. I have never sat down to work out what they were and what the subtle differences between some of them are until now. (There are 9 major categories, btw, and I’m currently able to name them all because of a strained acronym: DRRRIIPPP.)
- Gerund versus Present Participle. Same thing only different. One’s a noun and one’s a verb. Until very recently, while I’ve known what they were, I’ve really just used them and intuitively known whether or not I had it right. There wasn’t really any thought process involved. Only now, thinking about it is important, so I’ve been thinking about it.
- Adjectives go in a certain order by type. We all know it, but most of us don’t know what that order is. We just use it. So a lot of people will grammatically squirm if I tell them about my gold new beautiful bowtie, but not know exactly why. It should be a beautiful new gold bowtie, and everyone should feel better now. (Just think if I’d told you about my sealable leather Corinthian brown rectangular new large pretty briefcase.)
- Auxiliary verbs. Particularly Modal verbs… yeah, I don’t know if I’m ready to try explaining those in a sentence or two yet. Try: verbs you use with other verbs to add more meaning to of the sentence. Helpful? I don’t know. I might like to know, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I think I’m close.
- We’ve all seen the memes talking about close vs close, read vs read, bass vs bass, entrance vs entrance, and so on. Think about coming at the English language as an adult and how much of a giant pain the butt these are going to be.
And so on and so on.
The point is, at least in my head, that just because you intuitively understand a language and speak it fluently, that doesn’t mean you can teach it to someone. It’s just like anything else. In martial arts, I can’t teach you how to throw a proper punch if I don’t understand the body mechanics that go into it. How much actually goes into knowing how to hammer in a nail? Have you ever thought about all the things you actually need to know to figure out how long it’s going to take to get to your destination at the speed you’re going?
English is worse.
I’ve worked through enough and studied almost enough at this point that I think I’m going to write the exam this weekend. When the mark comes back, unless I’m completely out to lunch on how well I’m understanding things, I’ll move onto the middle part of the training, which also makes up about half of things, Methodology. I.e., once you have a functional (rather than merely intuitive) understanding of how English works, you can start to learn how to teach it.
I fully expect that to be the hardest part of the program for me, but the journey continues.
Stay safe and be well, everyone.by
by So at this point I feel very comfortable with the English language. I can spell just about anything without relying on the word processor to do it for me. I know the difference between your and you’re, and can pick from there, their, and they’re as appropriate, along with lots of other homonyms. My grammar and vocabulary are both pretty solid, to the point where I can often even decide whether the writer (or perhaps the editor) of something started off in British, American, Canadian, or Australian English.
I like English. It’s a crazy, fun, stupid language built on a foundation of borrowing whatever words it likes from anywhere else.
But I don’t know everything about the language by any stretch of the imagination, and I never will. Which is pretty cool.
The most recent example of that is the phrase widow’s peak. Everyone knows what this is, right? It’s the pointy spot in your hairline if you have one. Except until I got the edits back for an upcoming anthology correcting me, I thought it was actually a plural statement, widow’s (or widows’) peaks, meaning the arcs of your hairline to either side of this pointy spot.
I’m sure I’ve always heard it as plural. Maybe it’s a tiny slice of regional dialect inherited from my mother’s family (Dad’s family emigrated from Europe in the mid-1950s, so that seems less likely), or maybe I’ve just been hearing it wrong all this time.
It makes sense to me. Peaks are higher than what they peak over, right? Not lower. They point up, not down.
Except it doesn’t matter how much sense it makes. It’s still wrong. The etymology of the word is completely different (having to do with a peak of a widows hood worn in mourning for hundreds of years) and has been used this way at least since the 1830s.
So I’ve learned more about the phrase and its origin than I ever needed to know, which is cool, and maybe I’ll even use it properly going forward.
But I’ll still think of it the other way.
Be well, everyone.
Oh, and bonus points if you recognize the character.by