Tag Archives: german

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.

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.
Wilkommen
de rien