English

Well, it is red, and it has a fake windmill on top.

I was in France last week. Half of the week in Brittany, half in Paris. The picture above is from Paris, as you probably already know. The place is in Montmartre, but the better part of Montmartre is on the steps of Sacre Coeur. There’s your advice on what to do in Paris for the week. We like France enough that we hope to move there. With that in mind, we’ve gotten serious about learning the language. I won’t bore you with my progress, or lack of same, or put any French here, well, not much, well, maybe a lot, because as it happens, English vocabulary is sixty percent French in origin, one way or another. Any word ending in –tion, for example, is French. Mostly the meanings are the same. Une table is exactly the same thing as a table, so in reality, once you figure out how to “turn the corner” between French and English, the meaning of words isn’t that tough to master. But, what about the other forty percent of our words? Where did they come from?

Mostly, from German. Words like thief, belief, relief, and even brief (but brief is only used in the original sense by lawyers. It means “letter,” and lawyers write letters (briefs) to the court.) And our syntax is mostly German, while our spelling is a god-awful mess. The rules they give you in school are mostly French spelling rules, which makes sense and they will work most of the time (sixty percent of the time, that is.) Trouble is, those pesky German spellings come in, and they are the ones that you “just know” if you grew up speaking English. I suspect that most of the problem areas in English come from French, but for someone learning English, I suspect that their biggest issues come from German.

See, English is sort of a bastard child of Daddy German and Mama French, and the result isn’t always pretty. But knowing about our bastard language can certainly help one to choose the right word as opposed to the okay word. For hundreds of years, the English nobility spoke French in court, so in England, French words came to be seen asĀ  high class and tony, which is why we hear so many people say “utilize,” particularly when trying to emphasize that they are “really using it, not just using it!” Most of the time, the word “use” provides more clarity, so for a writer it’s better. For a cop or a manager, maybe clarity isn’t what they’re after, but for us writers, it’s better to use “use.” Is that useful? (Heck of it is, “use” comes from French, too, but utilize looks fancier.) This melding of linguistic cultures is why we have such a generous collection of synonyms. You can be tranquil, calm, at peace, relaxed, loose, and so on. This is probably the reason that you see the advice to cut your adverbs. After all, with all those synonyms, you probably don’t need any.

Let me know if you find this helpful. I know that I do.