Tuesday, May 5, 2009



Englishmen in America echo George Bernard Shaw's quip that the United States and Great Britain are “two Nations separated by a common language.” I could write at length about the myriad subtle differences between British and American English. But I won’t. Others have written superbly on that subject and there is not much I can add to it. Suffice it to say, Americans speak a wholly different language than the average Briton. Europeans who learn English unanimously confirm this to me. They say that it’s much harder to understand an American than an Englishman, primarily because Americans phonetically alter sounds that appear different in writing. For example, the word “getting” looks like it should contain a “t” sound. Yet when an average American says it, there is no “t” to be heard. At most, you will hear a “d” to replace the “t” (ie, “gedding”). At the least, you will hear a strange, swallowed “-nnh” sound to replace “-tting” altogether (ie, “getting” degenerates into a half-swallowed “ge-nnh”). For a foreigner who learns to pronounce every sound he reads, these American dialectic differences cause immense confusion. By contrast, a Briton does pronounce a “t” in “getting." They do not swallow or alter sounds, allowing the foreigner to more easily hear what he remembers seeing in writing.

Having said all this, I love English. I do not speak British English. Despite some claims to the contrary, Americans really do not like British English; they never have. Since the Revolution, they have done all they possibly could have done to make their English different than their former masters’ language. In fact, to widen the divide between England and America, popular myth has it that Congress even debated switching the national language to German in the 1790s. This would have been an appealing decision for several reasons. First, many European immigrants in America at the time spoke German. Second, among major European languages, German is the closest relative to English. Today, however, German seems a strange choice. After all, many Americans think that German sounds utterly foreign. But this is only because English—both British and American—has changed dramatically since the 18th Century. In 1787, English looked and sounded far more like German than it does today. German and English derive from common Germanic roots. Although English increasingly absorbed French and Latin “frills” after the 13th Century, it has never truly abandoned its “Germanic core.” In 1787, the “core” was far closer to German. That is why it would not have been a dramatic leap to change America’s “official language” from English to German, even for people who grew up speaking only English.

I love English precisely because it has a profound identity crisis. It is a Germanic language that likes to masquerade in Latin finery, but without Latin charm or grace. English is not romantic; it is schizophrenic and crass. Because English draws on so many linguistic traditions, it can express the same thought in two, three or even four ways. For example, to express the idea “a door leading out,” we can say “Exit,” from the Latin “ex” (“out”) and “it” (“he goes”), or we can opt for the good old German “Way Out,” from “weg” (“way”) “aus” (“out”). “Exit” sounds more official and more serious than “way out.” “Way out” is prosaic. It sounds too obvious. For better or worse, English has confused itself into thinking that Latin words are somehow more “urbane” than German ones, even though our German words are much more basic and convey meaning much more readily than Latin imitations. As a writer who uses English, I face a challenge every time I sit down to think about what I want to say: “Do I choose a Latin word, or do I go for the throat with German?” No other European language offers so many potential word choices. English is awash with words. We have at least two ways of saying almost every thought we have. That is why it is so fun and fascinating. There is constant variety.

But what is the “English core?” There are certain “core” words in any language that give it a basic identity. Without these words, there is no way to effectively learn the others. In my view, the most “basic words” in any language are prepositions. Without prepositions, we cannot express the locations of objects or actions. We cannot precisely describe things we see or hear. In short, prepositions allow us to linguistically depict our experiences to others. And what is the point of language if you cannot readily conjure an accurate image in another person’s mind? For instance, suppose you see a sea gull flying over a lake. Without prepositions, you could only say: “Sea gull flying lake.” What does that mean? Flying over a lake? Near a lake? Next to a lake? Beside a lake? Toward a lake? Away from a lake? Off a lake? Prepositions define action with relation to an object. Without them, we cannot communicate.

Prepositions are “core English words:” On, over, below, around, about, with, to, of, without, through, near, beside, under, from, by, off, after, before… the list goes on. How could we live without these words? They allow us to precisely identify how and where actions happen. Not surprisingly, they all come from German. Latin did not influence English prepositions because they are too basic to be replaced. Yet these basic words represent the most vital communicative element in our language. In German, “on” is “an.” “Over” is “über.” “Before” is “bevor.” Here we see the great similarities between English and German. Proceeding from these most basic words, we can see how our language developed into the strange hodgepodge it is today. We all too easily forget that prepositions define our language. In German, like English, prepositions are essential. And in an even more basic way, German combines prepositions with verbs and nouns to create completely new ideas. English used to do this all the time. More often now, however, it merely imports a French, Latin or Greek word to express what could be expressed by combining an English word with an English preposition. For example, to express the idea “more of something than is necessary in the circumstances,” English imported the word “superfluous,” from the Latin preposition “super” (“over”) and “fluere” (“to flow”). German, by contrast, stuck with its own adjectives and prepositions. It expresses the same idea as “überflüssig,” combining the preposition “über” (“over”) with “flüssig” (“flowing, in liquid form”). German did not import any foreign words here; it merely combined a German preposition with a German adjective to create a new idea. English could have done the same. But our word “overflowing” has a different meaning than “superfluous.” This is what happens when you allow too many linguistic traditions in the same language.

Yet English does not completely turn away from German-style preposition use. In fact, English combines prepositions with nouns, adjectives and verbs just the way German does. And in my view, we see English in its purest from when it does this. Consider first how rich our prepositions can be. Let us take a simple one: “On.” Who can mistake such a simple word? “On.” We all know what “on” means, don’t we? Well, it depends. There is the “spatial meaning,” as in: “Where is the sugar?” “It is on the table.” In this sense, “on” refers to the location of an object upon a relative flat surface, whether a table, a floor, a chair or even water. Then there is the “attachment meaning,” as in: “Where is that paper?” “It’s on the wall.” Again, “on” refers to an object’s location, but this time it defies gravity. Here, “on” implies that an object has somehow attached to something else. If we combine this meaning with a verb, we create some truly interesting English, as in: “Stop flicking that glue on your brother,” or “Hold on tight.” In this sense, we use the preposition to describe the end result of an action. We “flick” something and it winds up “attaching” to an object, namely, “our brother.” Or we attach ourselves onto something to keep our footing. And it does not end here. “On” can also imply “continuing action,” as in “Carry on!” “Work on!” “Preach on!” or “Walk on!” It can also imply action “approaching” an object, as in: “Come on now!” “Bring it on!” “This case comes on to be heard on the 24th of April 1987.” These are classic, pure English expressions. They do not depend on Latin for their expressive power. You do not truly speak English unless you intuitively—and reflexively—understand them.

History reveals that English used these “prepositional expressions” even more often than it does now. Still, even today, there are English idioms that use prepositions to express something beyond their literal meanings. Consider idiomatic uses involving “on”: “He is really laying it on thick.” This might refer to flattery, sarcasm, charm or even brutality. It makes no sense without context, and even then, “lay on” literally means something different than the idiomatic meaning. Historically, “lay on” could mean even more. In the 17th Century, “lay on” could also mean “attack” or “strike.” Cf. Shakespeare, Macbeth, “Lay on, Macduff, / And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough.’” Act V, sc. viii. These varied meanings all derive from the time-tested Germanic “prepositional” tradition. By combining a simple verb such as “lay” and the basic preposition “on,” English creates delicate, idiomatic subtleties. And this is just one preposition. When we combine “lay” with other prepositions, such as “off,” “over,” “by,” “to” or “in,” we create even more subtle, idiomatic meanings. In this sense, we do not need Latin to formulate uniquely English expressions.

We can thank our Germanic tradition for this. When I finally understood prepositions, I learned how to decipher German. When I speak to my German friends, I tell them I speak German by translating my thoughts into “Older English,” then translating those “Older English” words into German. After all, “Older English” is virtually identical to modern German syntax and usage. In any event, when confronted with a German “prepositional word,” it makes no sense to forage for a Latin embellishment. I simply break it down into its component parts, which look like “Older English.” Today, we see traces of “Older English” in words such as “hereby,” “insofar” and “be it known.” German continues to use such “old-sounding” expressions: “hiermit;” “insoweit;” and “sei es bekannt.” Thus, when I speak German, I imagine I am simply speaking English from an earlier age. German prepositions combine to form the same idiomatic subtleties that arise when we use English prepositions. Yet in many cases, they follow similar patterns. Germans express the verb “attack,” for example, in much the same way Older English combined “lay” and “on.” The Germans say “angreifen,” which combines the preposition “an” (“on”) and “greifen” (“to grasp” or “to grip”). “Attack,” then, “ means to “grab hold of something” or “lay onto it with force.” Linguistically, both “lay on” and “angreifen” follow the same logic and linguistic patterns. And they convey the same meaning in both languages. “Angreifen” may appear obscure to a modern English speaker who simply knows the word “attack.” But a mere glance into our English history reveals our common Germanic roots. Once we clear away the Latin underbrush, we immediately see the Germanic soil. In that light, "angreifen" appears a close linguistic relative, not a bizarre foreign mystery.

Prepositions make this analysis possible. It is easy to get lost in the Latin and Greek maze into which English has crept over the last 400 years. Yet when we take a step back and study our “core words,” we get back to first, Germanic principles. I have been studying and speaking German now for almost 13 years. During that time, I have improved my English because I finally uncovered the ancestral roots from which my native language derived. Learning German made me master “basic English.” It made me respect our great English prepositions. I have grown to trust basic English, not the foreign clutter that confuses it. I like hard-hitting English words. Although I don’t mind employing French, Latin and Greek-based words when I must, I prefer German variants when I have the chance to use them. “Way Out” is better than “Exit.” It may be less profound, but it is more true to our linguistic history. It just sounds more natural. When push comes to shove, English is German. Just look at our four-letter words. In our honest, vulgar moments, we resort to German. Damn, hell, shit, fuck and ass are not Latin or French. They are not delicate. Yet they express our thoughts precisely when we use them, and no one mistakes us. Furthermore, when we modify our vulgar words with prepositions, we do not use Latin, either. “Fuck off,” “Fuck up,” “Fuck over” and “Fuck around” all use old-time German-based prepositions to supply unique, genuine English meanings. We do not need Latin condescension or finery; English gets the job done.

How can you not love English? The variety is endless. With at least two ways to say every word, you can be serious, satirical, ironic, explanatory and ambiguous all in the same stroke. But when it comes to true, honest and natural expression, our basic German roots—along with our prepositions—convey us best. You can count on that.


Anonymous said...

As an English teacher, I have found myriad reasons to appreciate the intricacies of our bastard tongue. By the same token, however, I'm a bit repulsed by its' overwhelmingly messy nature. Lacking a phonetic code, how can we expect a native of Japan, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Pakistan, Burma, Albania or any other country to grasp both spoken and auditory comprehension? (let alone the ability to compose essays or read through text in Englidh)... Without fail, I am awe struck by pupils of Korean, Mexican, Vietnamese, Senegalese or or any other background who struggle past the set of 'fossilized errors' that inevitably present themselves as nasty obstacles in the puruit of second, (or 3rd or 4rth) language acquisition, or individuals who conquer the illogical grammar system, (not to mention all of the irregular verbs and exceptions throughout the language). While I may find my own career to be full of exciting opportunities, at this point, I'm not a strong advocate of Englidh becoming the lingua franca all over the wotrld.or atleast hope to preserve the unique languages, dialects and sociolinguistic codes that pervail in dfrnt pockets of civilization today!

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thanks for your comment. As a lifelong linguist myself, I couldn't agree more that language-learning is a daunting endeavor. I've learned five other languages so far; no other intellectual pursuit has better tempered my brain. Even studying law was easy by comparison to studying Russian.

I also share your view that English is "bastardized," and that it is quite strange that English has assumed "lingua franca" status.

English might be bastardized; but we know who our parents are. As I pointed out in this essay, knowing German, French and Latin helps penetrate the peculiarities in English idiom. That does not make them any less peculiar; it just tells us where they come from. I always find some truth in origins. That explains my love for history and genealogy.

But from a foreign learner's perspective, I can only imagine how bewildering English must be. Some foreigners tells me that English is "easy" because it is so informal. Yet I wonder whether they really have dug into genuine English texts. English grammar might have degenerated over the centuries, but the sheer volume of phonetic changes, exceptions, strange spellings and the enormous vocabulary make it quite a difficult language to really master. Anyone can "get by" in English. But very few can actually grasp the sheer enormity of disparate linguistic traditions that saddle our language.