Saturday, April 28, 2012

Is This a Great Language, or What?

You got words that combine to contradict each other. You got words that sound the same but would be awkward as hell if they ran into each other in the same sentence. 

What started me thinking about it was the question some wiseacre posed after seeing my blog: If a one-talent specialist knows many things within his specialty, does that make him a renaissance hedgehog?

Oxymoron! I didn’t say it out loud, of course, but that’s what we had: a couple of words joined together but forever at odds with each other, like in some marriages.  

The other thing -- homonyms –  I associate with my mother. In her later years, after my father died, she kept a notebook of English-language homonyms. I think it may have been her own immigrant background – Ellis Island, ’04 – that motivated her to compile something to help newcomers to the language. [That was 1904.]  

She had a highschool education and she did a lot with it. (Taught me to read, for one thing.) The collection started small – to, too, and two; hall vs haul – that sort of thing. By the time she died, just short of 102, she had branched out into words that confused in print (like carousel and carousal), and “New York homonyms” -- words that shouldn’t have sounded alike but did, where we lived (I give you farther and father, sorted and sordid, sauce and source). That made me wonder, had we lived one borough over, what she might have done with the distinctive Brooklyn accent. Sometimes she would just note oddities:  how “impugn” had nothing to do with “impunity.” Sometimes the words would be obscure (by my lights, anyway: try “pome” ) or archaic (when last did you hear anyone “keen”?). 

That started me thinking about language as I’ve encountered it, and what English must be for people who have to learn it.   

I struggled with a foreign language requirement in college. I’d studied Latin in highschool and would have enjoyed going on with it. I thought of a way to do it, too, but I couldn’t shake a mental picture of the Admissions Department at Gonzaga puzzling over my name on the application. It wasn’t taught at the school I attended, and I had to switch to a modern language. I chose Spanish, and almost failed it -- in part, I’m sure, because of resentment at having to start over. It doesn’t seem now like that hard a language to work with.  

A few years later I found myself immersed in Japanese, and started to study that. It was going well, but the government agency I was working with required my services at an artillery piece, and I had to drop out.  But in my short acquaintance with it, the language seemed learnable.  

But then there’s English.  The quirks! Help, helped; walk, walked; take, took?  Bring, brought?  C’mon.  


How does anyone learn this language?

Next: Some free association