On the English language…

January 31, 2015

You would expect me to say I love the English language, but I have been thinking about what it is that I particularly love; teaching the language and its literature gave me a career I loved, too. And yet my knowledge of the language in terms of its history, structure and linguistics is basically self-taught and rather patchy.

I love the quirks and oddities of the language: the ‘th’ sound that foreigners have such difficulty getting their minds around the two different pronunciations of, and its utterly bonkers spelling rules, that I fervently hope no-one ever succeeds in ‘reforming’.

One of the things I have come to realise and appreciate over the years is how vast it is, as a language, with far more words than any other language; the OED has twenty huge printed volumes and several volumes of supplements, and, as far as I’m aware, no other language comes anywhere near this. What this means is that there is a great wealth of synonyms – look at the size of Roget’s Thesaurus (a volume I’ve always possessed and never used!); synonyms mean an ability to express more shades of meaning, and meaning with great precision and subtlety. And then, the sheer wealth of words mean that, for instance, there are far more rhyming words available to poets if they want them.

English does seem to have developed into the closest thing there is to a world language; obviously this is a good thing in some ways, although I think it is also capable of getting in the way of communication, but it has also led to the English becoming very lazy indeed about learning other languages, and this is both sad, culturally, as well as a serious mistake in terms of our relations with the rest of the world.

I am fascinated by the ways that our language has changed over time, from an inflected Germanic language via Norman French to the relative simplicity of today’s English. I say simplicity advisedly, because that perceived simplicity is one of the reasons for the falling off of foreign language learning in this country. But we have a grammar without the genders that French, German, Spanish, Polish and many other languages have, we have a grammar without the use of cases such as German and Polish have, and we have a very flexible word order to our sentences. Equally fascinating to discover has been the wealth of word experimentation and creation by our great writers such as Shakespeare and Milton. I have loved what my learning of foreign languages has taught me about my own language, in terms of connections in vocabulary and word origins, as well as differences in the ways languages develop and change.

I find certain things about English to be annoying, or to be disadvantages, particularly some of the effects of sharing the language with the United States. Somehow, generic ‘mid-Atlantic English’ is rather soulless.

As a teacher, I felt I was something of a stickler for speaking correctly, as well as writing grammatically and spelling accurately. I always encouraged students to learn a new word every day. These are not the most important things in the world, but are surely worth doing properly. There is money to be made for the person who can find an effective way of teaching and drilling correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, from the start to the end of compulsory schooling. And I feel strongly about such things because I think the English language is such a wonderful thing…

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