Tag Archives: French

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

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.

Atuona, Hiva Oa – My Kingdom for a Rental Car

Atuona, Marquisas Islands – My Kingdom For A Rental Car By the morning of day four on Hiva Oa, my sweaty F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out) induced panic reached epic proportions. I tried to relax in Sonrisa’s cockpit with a cup of coffee, but it was to no avail. My throat is tight, my breath short, and my feet are itchy. We have got to get going! You see, once again, the administrative aspects of managing the boat, feeding ourselves and trying to deal with internet have delayed our explorations. How are we supposed to adequately explore 10+ Islands in the Marquesan Island Group, the 70+ Islands of the Tuamotus and reach Papeete, Tahiti by June 24? That is less than one month away, and we are already on Day 4 of only one bay! Just to get from Sonrisa to town takes about an hour given the row and the walk. I am failing. I feel like a failure. I’m not doing this right! After hyperventilating into my brown paper bag, I collect my wits and set a plan for the day. We must find a rental car, so we can traverse the two-hour drive to the other end of the island and see the largest Tiki in all the Pacific Islands (except for Easter Island). Once the rental car is reserved for tomorrow, we will hike to see the petroglyphs that are close to town. Easy enough, right? I have money, the Atuonans have rental cars, this should be a simple transaction. We row the 20 minutes into shore and begin our search at a warehouse we pass on the walk into town. We arrive at 9:30 a.m., and a sign, front and center advertises Atuona Rental Cars. Perfect. We enter the parking lot and look around, but it is desolate. Not a soul in sight. Locks on three doors seem to indicate it is closed right now. “No matter,” we figure, “we will just do our hike to see the petroglyphs and return right before lunch. Someone is bound to be here by then. We walk further up the road and find the trailhead to the petroglyphs. Andrew twitters with excitement as we commence our first jungle hike. He hums the theme song to Indiana Jones. The double track road slowly devolves into mud, crosses a river, and starts onto a footpath overgrown by moss, banana trees, coconut palms, flowers, and plants with leaves so large they could serve as an umbrella. The jungle shade is a welcome reprieve on this hot sunny day, but my feet itch as the mud slurps between my toes. Soon, our path is blocked by a small group of cows. In the US, I have no qualms about walking past our docile, slow cows. Here, though, the cows all have sharp, pointy horns. I imagine them taking chase, head bowed to stab me in the gut, as I wave my red hankie like a conquistador. No, no, I’d rather wait for them to move from the trail. In the meantime, I can observe the pretty jungle. Andrew was not so patient. He repeatedly cajoled them to “MOOOoooo-ve,” but they refused. Eventually, he decided to clamber through vines, tree-fall, thickly growing plants, and spiderwebs to make his way around the cows. I followed. Where is your machete when you need one? Luckily, our path is well marked with jungle rock carins just like on trails at home. I enjoy the familiar touch. At last, we arrive at the petroglyphs carved by ancient Polynesians. We have no idea what they depict or say, but it’s easy to imagine men wearing bone carved into jewelry hammering away at the rock. Upon returning to the road, we try the rental car place again. 11:30 p.m. Now, there is a dog resting by the door, but still no one else there. The sign has a telephone number, but we don’t have a phone. Furthermore, wouldn’t we be calling this building where no one is available? Puzzling, we hike the hill toward our agent, Sandra’s, office. Maybe she can guide us. But, Sandra is not there either. Instead, we meet a fellow cruiser who is using the wifi. He indicates that there is another rental car company at the top of a very steep hill, just after the hotel. Ok, we will try that. We grab a quick lunch at the gas station: baguette, Roquefort blue cheese, and a cold, crisp apple. We note beautiful fresh tuna fillets in a fridge, $5, for purchase at a gas station. We know what is for dinner tonight. Next, we hike up and up and up. And indeed, we find what we are looking for! A group of goats stand beneath a sign reading “ATUONA RENTAL CAR,” just to the left of a driveway. We walk to the house/building at the bottom and find a woman tending to her yard. “Bonjour!” I greet her, “Je voudrai louer un voiture pour demain?” She cocks her head to the side and scowls as if she doesn’t understand. I pantomime me holding on and driving a steering wheel and repeat: “louer, rent?” She scowls again, “Oui, oui, je compris, mais je n’ai pas les voitures ici.” So, she understood my question, but she doesn’t have any cars here. Now, I scowl, puzzling. Wh

Source: Atuona, Hiva Oa – My Kingdom for a Rental Car