How many times have we seen that slogan on a patch, tattoo or bumper sticker?
How many times has it registered with us, touched some deep but sensitive nerve in the deep recesses of our American spirit? Maybe it's just a personal or professional beef with me; I've got a thing for English. I've been speaking it for almost sixty years, studying it for about forty and teaching it for almost twenty, so it's a point of pride with me, but how many times have we heard some foul utterance (and I don't mean profanity) fall off of some fool's lower lip trying to pass itself off as conversation, or even communication?
How many times have we, ourselves, been guilty of some linguistic or grammatical faux pas(French for "false move." More on French later), mistake or atrocity? Let's take a look at some specific examples: we'll start with the easy ones.
Remember your Mom telling you that " 'ain't' ain't in the dictionary?"
Well, Mom was wrong. Well-intentioned, I'm sure, but mistaken nonetheless.
I own almost a dozen dictionaries; Merriams, Websters', New Century editions (although now they're more than a century old), and a few specialty volumes, (such as "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins," a novelty volume of rare and obscure words) and collections of eccentricities by Lederer, Bryson and numerous other linguophiles and verbophiles (that's Latin for "language nerds and "wordfreaks").
"Ain't" is in most of them; it's not a question of whether or not it's a "real" word,it's a question of whether or not it's used correctly. "Ain't," like "don't," "won't" or "didn't," is a contraction. In this case is comes from two usages; the first, dating from the early 16th century, is a contraction for "am I not." As strange as it may sound, "I'm not, ain't?" was once considered correct, but English, being a "living" language, is constantly changing and evolving. Changing, yes; evolving, we can only hope.
The later --and prevailing-- usage is as a contraction for "are not" or "aren't" so when one says ""ain't I" they are actually saying "aren't" with a slight vowel shift, which has been happening in English for almost a thousand years.
(Ever wonder why English is spelled with an "E" but pronounced with an "I"? You got it; vowel shift. The fact of the matter is that it actually started with an "A," as in Anglo-Saxon. You remember the Anglo-Saxons, right? You probably are one, or at least part one. More on them later).
Makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it?
Sorry, Mom. Nobody's right all the time. Not even me.
Some Myths and Myth-conceptions
Myth: English is an easy language to learn. False, but it is, because of its flexibility, about the easiest language in which to make oneself understood, providing that one has a few basic rudiments. English is actually a tough language: because of its complicated, convoluted and often contradictory rules, it's the toughest, according to some experts, although it is still the most popular second language in the world. If it was really all that terrible, there wouldn't be all these people around the world trying to learn it, would there? Speaking English is much like playing the bagpipes; any fool can make noise, and some can make it musical, but nobody ever really "masters" either the instrument or the language. The best we can hope for is an uneasy truce.
Conversely, Americans trail the world in bilingualism. Even with the influx of the Latino population over the past hundred years, fewer than 40% of Americans speak a second language (something other than our versions of English).
Ironies, Contradictions and Innuendoes.
While English is rife with rules, they don't explain half of what's required to acquire, not just a working knowledge, but a true command of the language. Remember "'I' before 'E' except after 'C' unless sounding like 'A' as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh'?"
Weird, huh? Weigh weird. The rules are defined by the exceptions. This may sound ironic, but only because it is.
I still wonder why we "drive" on a "parkway" and "park" in a "driveway."
I wonder as well, if the plural of "tooth" is "teeth," then why is the plural of "booth" not "beeth"? In as much as the plural of "goose" is "geese," why is the plural of "moose" not "meese"? The same in "mouse" and "mice," but not "house" and "hice."
For the sake of reference: To "imply" is to suggest in a subtle and indirect manner. Such an implication may be known as an "innuendo." To "infer" is to pick up on that implication and draw the suggested conclusion. Please try and keep these straight.
And, contrary to popular rumor, "innuendo" is not Italian for "up your ass."
Back to the Anglo-Saxons
The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was a major turning point in the English language (many of civilization's greatest advances were products, by-products or side-effects of warfare; so were some our worst mistakes). It was there that the invading French (The Saxons, from Saxony) conquered the English (the Anglos) and established what was to become a new language; Anglo-Saxon, or proto-English, (to be followed by Old English, Middle English, Modern English and Ebonics) under the leadership of William the Conqueror, alias William the Bastard (he had been born the illegitimate son of English tailor, but led the French to take over his homeland. The more things change, right? No problem... we'll get 'em back at the Battle of Agincourt, where we'll be ''plucking the yew" More on that later).
The new French ruling class in England maintained their elite status with their troops, their gold and their language, thus forcing those who wanted their gold (and wanted to stay out of the way of their troops) to learn their language. Most of them did pretty well, I guess, but what happened was that a lot of French words were assimilated ("stolen") and became part of English. Among these are "souffle," "resume," daja vu, "entree," "soixante-neuf" and so many others.
This wasn't the first time this had happened; the Picts, Celts, Cymru, and Gaels (and other smaller, but no less ferocious, tribes) of the British Isles had been doing this since the beginning of the Roman Conquest. The Romans finally gave up on the Scots in the late second century, when Emperor Hadrian decided his best bet was a wall. Although the Roman Empire began to collapse in 410 AD after the invasion of Alaric The Goth and his barbarian horde (pronounced "a-LAR-ic," his name is the root of the modern word "alarm"), its fading influence from its now-unsupported outposts throughout Europe began to infiltrate socially, where the former Legionnaires, arguably the Baddest Boys on the Block, now abandoned by a dying regime, had to find local work for their own support and local women for everything else (just another kind of assimilation).
This is why we have three versions of almost every verb in English; for example "ask" is from the Old English "axion." (today's popular "I wanna ax you sum'pin'" is no doubt a regression to this stage). "Inquire" is from the French and, most ancient, thusly considered by some to be the most formal and hence most correct, "interrogate," is from the Imperial Roman Latin (which also lends its name to its four derivative languages; French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, the "Romance" languages, while --ironically again-- Spanish reserves the title of "Latin").
While English usually has at least three words for every verb, there are, sadly, some concepts for which no words exist in English.
Some Concepts For Which Words Do Not Exist In English.
For all the words that English language boasts, including all those "assimilated" ("stolen") from other languages, we still come up short in a lot of ways. We have assimilated everything from "aardvark" (a species of anteater; literally, the South African Dutch, or Afrikaans, for "earth pig.") to "zymurgy," (from the Greek, the stage in the fermentation process when yeast convert sugar to alcohol).
Yeah, the Greeks had a word for it!
Despite all of this linguistic larceny, we still have some very conspicuous deficiencies For example, the ancient Greeks had --and probably still have-- a dozen different words to describe the Twelve Principal Kinds of Love. There is "eros," physical or sexual love; you know, the "erotic" kind. Then there's "fratus," or "brotherly love," the kind found among bikers and other "fraternities." There's "filial" love, the love of family, particularly of children, "filii" being both the Greek and Latin for "son," just using different alphabets. There were also nine more that I can't remember right now.
We, as Anglophones ("speakers of English," in Latin, "anglo phone" means, literally, "English noise"), have only one: Love.
I Love the feeling of the wind in my beard and the taste of the bugs in my teeth. I Love my family. I Love the Rendezvous. I Love bourbon, tuna fish and peanut butter cups (though not in the same sandwich). I Love them all but, in English, I have only one word to express those various and sundry Loves.
Don't you just Love English? I know I do. You should, too.
Beyond that, there are foreign words for concepts which we either don't recognize or haven't bothered coining a word for (and yes, the term for making a new word is "coining," implicitly indicative of their value). Among my favorite foreign rarities is the Japanese "shibui." It's their word (it's a noun) for the process or quality of the "beauty of aging." Granted, it applies mostly to women (as the Japanese, like we Americans, have more women than men in our national population). I know that sounds strange in such a youth-obsessed culture as 21st-Century America, but I invite you to take a walk to the Top Of The Hill or down Tit Alley and check out the shite-hot super-foxy 30-, 40- and even 50-year old biker chicks. See that? Just because there's snow on the roof doesn't mean that isn't a fire in the furnace. That's "shibui."
Pop Quiz, hotshots:
Which of the following sentences is correct?
"Vinnie loves Suzie more than I." or
"Vinnie loves Suzie more than me."
You're going to have to read the rest of the article to find out.
An "Aside": Punctuation
Although it's barely detectable in speech, which relies more on tonal inflection, it is of crucial importance in writing. Back in the early '70s there was a small but vociferous (literally "vocally ferocious") faction (much like "fraction," but of people) at the University of Wisconsin who were lobbying for a Gender Studies program, arguing that men and women thought differently and, therefore, learned differently (something which we bikers have known all along). To prove their point, they circulated over 5,000 index cards with a simple message on each side: on the back were simply two "check one" boxes marked "M" for male or "F" for female, to indicate the gender of the person filling out the card. On the front, it had this --unpunctuated-- simple sentence:
"woman without her man is nothing"
The results were astounding. To "within an alpha of point-zero-five" (statistic-speak for "more than 95% of the time"), men capitalized the "w" in "woman," placed commas after "woman" and "man," and a period at the end.
The female respondents were much the same, except they placed the second comma after "her." There's your "spin." Pay attention.
Ironies and Contradictions in Word Order and Word Choice
These are many, subtle, complicated, and best explained by example. The good thing is that they're easier to show than to try to explain. You'll get the picture.
The gently assertive "I think so" is nowadays most often countered with the simply contrary "I don't think so" rather than the classic "I think not." Much of this, I think, is that people nowadays don't understand the subtle difference between "I think not" and "I don't think..." which offers the conversant (the person with whom they are conversing) the opportunity to interject "I know you don't think!"
Such riposte and witty repartee (wise-assing back and forth) often results in such conversations as:
"So you think."
"I don't think, I know."
"Yeah, I don't think you know, either."
In another example: to say that "he was beside himself at the sight of her" conveys a very different concept from "the very sight of her doubled him up." Or yet another: only in English are a "fat chance" and a "slim chance" the same size.
The rest of the world's word for us is not an English word, and even the English use it to describe us: "Yankee." Derived from the Aztec word, "yanqui," it meant simply "stranger." And we Americans are indeed pretty strange, and so is our language.
Here's One You'll Recognize: "Plucking The Yew."
One of my particular favorites and I'm sure it's one of yours. If you don't use it every day, the chances are good that you've seen it every day.
Shakespeare's "Henry The Fifth" (a large part of which he wrote in French. Shakespeare was no fool.) makes reference to its origins when it speaks of "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers," Sound familiar yet? It will.
The "Plucking of the Yew" dates from crucial Battle of Agincourt, a small town in northern France, near Calais, "upon Saint Crispin's Day" (October 25) in 1415. It was possibly the turning point in the Hundred Years War (English revenge for their asskicking at Hastings some 349 years earlier... see "Back To The Anglo-Saxons" above). The critical difference was technology, or, more correctly, weapons technology: the decisive weapon was the English Longbow. Made of strong and flexible (described in contemporary chronicles as "spry") yew wood, it was half-again as long as the French bows and had twice the range.
The French, frustrated by the expense of keeping English prisoners and revolted by the smell of their decaying corpses, hit on a plan: not being able to practically keep them or kill them, they would simply disable the English archers so they couldn't use those great longbows, and send them back.
To fulfill this plan, the French amputated the middle fingers of all the English archers they captured. You bowhunters will know this: in archery, the bowstring is drawn back either by the first two fingers, or by the second and third fingers. Either way, without the middle finger, an archer isn't an archer any more.
The English rebounded in the finest English tradition of taunting and jeering their enemies until they're too pissed off to fight coherently (remember Mel Gibson and crew flipping up their kilts to moon the English in "Braveheart"? That's probably where the English got the idea). The English would line up and show their middle fingers to the French, signifying that they could still "pluck yew." (Today, in Great Britain, the gesture is more often made with the first two fingers; basically the reverse of the "peace" sign, but the meaning remains clear).
English is a language of oddities rather than conformities. Whether it's a case of looking for a word evolved from the Anglo-Saxon or something "assimilated" from another language, there will always be bits that don't fit the rules or fill the bill. Get used to it: Nothing rhymes with "orange" and there is no Swahili word for "igloo."
As you may or not have guessed by now, I'm not writing this to the Imports and Immigrants: this article is for the Natives.
I don't expect somebody --anybody-- "right off the boat" as they say, to be able to speak the language as well as the local native speakers do. The irony is that the Imports often tend to speak the language considerably better that the Locals!
This is America, folks, and, of all the things we do have, one thing we do not have is an "official" language. We have English --or the American version of English-- which, for four hundred years, has passed as the "prevailing" language, but there's nothing official anywhere that says that English will be our "National Language" (like "The Star Spangled Banner" is our national anthem. A truly atrocious piece of music, if you ask me. I vastly prefer "America The Beautiful," but that's an argument for another article).
The Object of the Lesson
Let's take a little pride in our language, shall we, folks?
This is our Mother Tongue, the language which we learned as infants, were taught in school, and have tried to use to express the highest ideas and ideals of our society and culture. This is the language of Shakespeare, of Chaucer, of Byron and Shelley, of Mary and Mary Wollenstonecroft, of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, of Kate Chopin and Flannery O'Connor and John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. Yeah, okay, Steven King, too, but he's another story.
There are roughly 700,000 words in the English Language (according to the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary). The average American has a vocabulary of somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 words (down from 30,000 to 35,000 fifty years ago); the average Immigrant, in their first year here, will acquire roughly half that many (even if they have had intensive English classes back in their homeland, as many of them have) but, for all that, we --as Americans-- use less than 300 different words a day (the various versions of "fuck" only count as one).
As this is "Our Flag" and "Our Nation," this is also "Our Language."
Let us be proud of it, as proud of it as we are of our flag, our Constitution (which was written in English) and our country; let us wave it high and speak it clearly and concisely. Let us craft it with the same attention to precision and detail with which we attend to our machinery. Let us put our best effort into it. Let us love it like we do our friends and families, and let us help it out as we would any friend or family member, for it is, after all, our beloved Mother Tongue.
A Final Aside
I was at a party --one of those boring faulty affairs-- at a private home where the hostess was particularly obsessed with her cat, a white long-haired Roaster. She had the annoying habit of cooing to it in nonsensical noises, "baby talk," she called it. I was just buzzed enough to call her on it. (What the hell, they were all sipping white wine, I just figured I couldn't let all that good Bourbon go to waste).
After getting a migraine from hearing her coo and tweet to this unshaven entree, I finally approached her.
"I don't mean to sound critical," I began cautiously, "but if you keep talking 'baby talk' to that rodent, it's never going to learn to speak properly."
I wasn't invited back the following year. Can't imagine why.
People, please; revere your language.
Mind your punctuation.
And watch your mouth.
Here Endeth The Lesson
Postscript (from the Latin, "written after"):
Pop Quiz answers: Both are correct, but with different meanings: the first means that Vinnie loves Suzie more than I love Suzie; the second means that Vinnie loves Suzie more than he loves me. Pluck Vinnie anyway. I never much liked him to begin with.
Shakespeare quotes are from Henry V: Act IV, scene III, lines 60-67.