Language! Or, Those Darn French!

Detail from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Detail from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

If you’ve read a few of the things I’ve posted here, you may have noticed that I enjoy travel. One of the things I’ve found that helps make travel more enjoyable is learning some of the language of the place I am going to visit. Prior to visiting Cancun a few years ago I studied up on my Spanish. Prior to visiting Rome I learned enough Italian to become terribly confused, as it is too similar to Spanish for me to always tell them apart. (But I did learn to hear words, and was amazed that, in fact, Italians, at least Romans, tend to speak rather slowly.) Prior to visiting Germany last year I studied German. We are planning to visit England this Spring, so maybe I should study English? Since a writer is concerned with language (or else they’re not a very good writer) I find it interesting to see how languages other than English are put together and used. Here are a few observations from my time in other countries.

As I pointed out above, not knowing a language at least a little can lead you to some plainly wrong conclusions. Such as thinking that Italians speak very fast. Actually, every word ends in a vowel in that language, so it can be difficult to tell when one word ends and another begins. Also, most words have a lot more syllables than they need, so if you can’t hear the words, it sounds fast. French is special to me because it is the only language besides English that I started learning by immersion. I got off of a train in Calais at 4:30 in the morning. The train to Paris left at six. I needed coffee. I was hungry. To hell with what they think of my accent. I asked my companion how to say various things, and, eh voila, I got my coffee and pastry. To this day, French is the easiest foreign language for me to use, probably because I started learning it from the ground up.

Spanish, though, was my first. My sister was taking Spanish in college, and she taught simple Spanish words like numbers and other single-syllable things to my seven-year-old self, in order to help herself learn. Well, she still speaks some Spanish, and by cracky, I do too. Unfortunately, we can’t hide anything from her son, my nephew, because he speaks Spanish better than both of us put together. Lo siento, Ed.

As to German, it is common to think that German is the closest thing to English, and in some ways it is. However, more than half of our English vocabulary comes from French, as do our verdamt (get it?) spelling rules. A thousand years ago, English and German were the same language, more or less. Now, not so much. But some words are exactly the same in German. Words like active, relative, and the like, except that they’re spelled “activ” and “relativ.”

All of my three non-English languages do have something in common that English has lost: personal versus formal second person pronouns. That is, if you know somebody well, you use one word for “you” with them. Otherwise, you use a different word for “you.” But, hey, the personal “you” does exist in English, even though virtually nobody uses it any more. Oh really? Really! And thou dost know whereof I write, dost thou not? Sure, and if I hadn’t studied at least one other language, I would never know what that “biblical” or “Shakespearean” language was really all about. It comes, one way or another, from the German: Thou hast looks a whole lot like du hast, doesn’t it? Especially the “hast” part!

So I’d recommend studying another language if you want to write English. It really helps to understand how language is structured and used, which of course just what you’re trying to do when you write, fiction or non-fiction makes no difference. As Twain observed, The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening! Oh, isn’t it, though?

I’d like to close with an observation about the French language. I used to say that the French didn’t know how to spell, because what they write doesn’t match what they say. However, in recently starting some formal studies, using Duolingo*, I have learned that in fact, I had that backwards. The French spell quite well. The verb conjugations and the various inflections are familiar, not at all unlike Spanish and Italian words. But what is pronounced is more of a sloppy creole of only vaguely comprehensible syllables, when they use syllables, that is. I read a theory that English is a creole, and maybe it is. And maybe we got that, along with a lot of our words, from the French. Merci boucoup, mes amis!

 

*Duolingo is a free online language course that I highly recommend to anyone wanting to learn a new way of speaking. Not quite as good as getting off a boat in the middle of the night in Calais, but close, very close.