Know Thy Language

Nature Reclaiming a Picnic Area in the Eifel

The picture is sort of reflective of my topic this week. You could think of it as the German parts of English as they still exist. Crumbling in spots, mossy, but still some solid bits. So it is with English, the language of, well, me. And you, if you’re reading this. I have lately been studying French, which is what sixty percent of English actually amounts to. In the past I have also studied Spanish and German. Spanish is cognate with French, but not a significant ancestor of English. German and French are a different story. Here’s a condensed version.

A thousand years ago, German and English, (Anglisch) were the same language. (The Angles and Saxons were Germans.) And, to this day, English mostly uses German syntax. Which is why talk like Yoda if you want to, you can. In German, they call that “putting the most important idea up front in the sentence.” In English we call it “talking weird,” but we still understand it. English has lost virtually all of its noun and pronoun cases. Modern German hasn’t, but that’s another story. German, like many languages, has two forms of the pronoun for “you.” English has one, except in what is usually thought of as formal, or religious English, when we use Thee, Thy, and Thine. Oddly, those forms are not formal, but rather personal. In German somebody might speak of “dein Hand.” Shakespeare would have said, “thine hand.” Dein, thine, pretty similar. Even in Shakespeare’s day, the various forms of “dein,” such as “deine,” were gone. And after a while even the root word faded away. There are still a few groups of people using that personal pronoun, and it still appears in standard dictionaries, but mostly people just misunderstand how it should be used. The personal “you,” in German today, is Du. In French it is Tu. Maybe those two are just too close to the formal “you” not to be combined with it.

Formal “you” was used on authority figures, religious or secular, and people you didn’t know well. That’s why the bible uses “thine,” because supposedly we all have a personal relationship with a god. But to a king or a priest, you would have used “you” or “your lordship” or similar phrasing.

In 1066 French started moving in on English. By Shakespeare’s day it had taken over a lot of our more common vocabulary. Today, it’s difficult to say anything without using a French word. Anything ending in “tion,” for instance, is French. You may be sitting at a “table,” just like a French person might be. And the word on those eight-sided signs, the red ones? That’s a French word, too. In Latin it was “Estop,” and in France it is “Stop.” Only in Canada do they use “arret” on Stop signs. Well, it’s their country, but Stop is a French word. Oh, and that rule about putting an “e” on the end of a word to make the vowel long? That’s pure French.

French was the language of the (Franco)-English nobility, and even today, the more French form of a word seems to be unconsciously thought to be superior to a simpler form. Ironically, a good way to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about, at least to someone who knows the language, is to use (utilize?) lots of fancy French words when some plain words, French or German, would sound better. Everything can be good between two people, or it can be copacetic. The difference? Trying to sound smarter than you are. (Unfortunately, such phrases have been soaked up by some jargons, so they get used more than they should be.)

As a writer, knowing the mixed history of English can help you to clarify what you’re trying to say. Rather than that old “I after E except after C” rule, that doesn’t work half the time, consider that in German, the letter combination “ei” always sounds like our long I — “eye”. Again, in German, the combination “ie” always sounds like our long E — “eee”. If it isn’t a German word, it’s a French word, and, if sounded as long a “ay”, it’s spelled ei. Originally, all French “ei” words were sounded as A. French “ie” words are borrowed from German, and, well, what do you know? “Aye.”

English is a great language. One of its best features is that there is no institution dedicated to “pure” English or even “proper spelling” as with other languages, most notably French. Now that you know a bit of the history of our fine language, you’ll be better able to manipulate it into the story you want to tell.

You’re welcome.
de rien

The view from Universal Studios, Los Angeles, CA, in 2003.

Tempus fugit velut sagitta est, Fugit velut Musa sapientum fixa fructum. Not gonna translate, either. I just read a Twitter feed link about this being Madeline L’Engle’s 100th birthday. Holy cats, huh? Of course, she did manage to start a very good and popular book with “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Brit friends, in this case that period belongs inside the quotation marks.) I have to hand her kudos for that. I’m more like, “It was a dark and stormy night, so I stayed in and watched Netflix.” (Okay, Brit friends, carp about that one all you want. And this one.) 

My point this week is persistence. Unaccountably, I am still not famous and rich. Or at least rich. But I persist. I’m about to start shopping a novel yet again. This time for sure! How do I know? Because every successful author I’ve ever met, or listened to, or read advice from, says so. It’s like Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! (You don’t want to hear me play the violin, by the way.) (Yes, I sort of can.) Honestly, anyone who says I can’t write a good story is just wrong. Too bad for them when I am famous, huh? And, I know it because all my life I have wanted to write and travel and dole out bits of wisdom. I’ve done it a lot, but not for money. Now, though, the world shall see.

Nothing heavy this week. Just persistence. Are  you persisting?

Creativity and Struggle

Le tour eifel, 2012 Photo by Tami Cowden

Recently I listened to Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. Like most of her poetry, it is about bittersweet relationships, heartache, love, struggle, and a bit of redemption. That’s true of a lot of creative works. In popular music, an amazing number of tunes are breakup songs. Take Breakfast at Tiffany’s for example. “And I said, well that’s one thing we’ve got.” Or Green Day’s famous Good Riddance (Time of Your Life,) which is not, as many high school faculty seem to think, a sincere wish that you enjoyed yourself, but a bitter and snide farewell to someone the singer thinks has wronged them big time. I’ve written one good poem in my life. It was shortly after I broke off a relationship. I remember being surprised that being the dumper was no more pleasant than being the dumpee. It’s tough times, and no mistake. But, outside of that, I’ve just lived a fairly quiet life of great fortune and privilege.

I had cousins at Jamestown, and a direct ancestor who arrived in 1729. The next year he married a girl from Garden City. One of their many sons is also my direct ancestor. He fought with a Connecticut regiment during the American Revolution. Odd, because they were from Philadelphia. Yes, I have direct ancestors who were genuine Philadelphia WASPS. And, of course, I’m a white male with blue eyes born smack in the middle of the twentieth century in Ohio, of all places. White privilege was invented for people like me. One breakup does not a creative career make. I can’t sing the blues; outside of my eyes there’s nothing blue going on here. I can’t write heartfelt song lyrics about loss and deprivation, because, well, haven’t really had any. In college, some friends and I were into the Alice books. Bill was the Carpenter, Ed another character. I was the Mock Turtle. “He hasn’t really any problems, you know.” So true.

Now, your basic African American, there’s somebody with problems. Besides being on the inverse side of privilege, consider their ancestry. Slaves! The lucky bastards! No wonder they invented the blues! No wonder they continue to shine in creative ventures of all kinds. Lucky, lucky, lucky!

But, dammitall, I like to write stories. I’m not sure I’ll ever tug many heartstrings, but I try to entertain. And sometimes, entertainment is all you need, you know?