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English, the language.

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Stefan Linnemann
75428.  Sun Jun 18, 2006 5:19 pm Reply with quote

How could it not be mentioned, and thoroughly discussed in all its interestingness?

Note its spelling, quite unique in its inconsistency. And there's homos all over the place!
If you're not stumbling over a homonym a homophone drops in unexpectedly,while a homograph is tiptoeing up from behind to trip you up.

I do have an idea as to why English is so rife with them, and it's either 1. the bleeding obvious, 2. something generally accepted by linguists, but heretofore unknown to me, or 3. something someone else should have thought of ages past.
It's of ourse well-known, that the British Isles were the favourite destination for your average first-millennium idle marauder in for a bit of fun. Quite a few of them stayed and settled. The celts were already there. Then there's been Romans and Normans settling in, bringing along a strnng Romance language influence, Then there's been Saxons, Angles, Danes, Norsemen, Norwegians, Jutes, and what not, bringing with them several germanic languages.
The upshot of all that is, of course, that there are at least three distinctive linguistic roots to the English language from early days on, likely each with their own pronunciation and spelling. Now I hear al sorts of linguists and such protesting, that some of these peoples don't even have a written language ye. But that's only because they've found no proof. It might be just the case, that written evidence of that time has simply not survived.

Anyway, in summary, English is part Romance, part Germanic, and part Celtic, and those parts give it its jumble sale look.

Another tidbit to kick around: the officla language of the united States is listed as "English", but I'll kiss monkey's astrolabe if it can be provn, that people over there actually write and speak English. Or perhaps any language, if it comes to that: they get the spelling wrong, they get the grammar wrong, and they get the semantics wrong, And if you point it out to them, they go: "So?". So i tell them: "If you missspell, it makes people think you are stupid.". And that makes them angry, when you tell them they look stupid. So what do they do? This is where they get scary, and I start calling "911" for a van with two (men in) white coats and an extra-long-sleeved vest: "We've got Freedom of Speech, and I'll write any way I damn well like!". Think about that one. At any rate, at that point I give up and grant them their right to not only look stupid, but also the right to be and remain an absolute and utter no-brainer.

75430.  Sun Jun 18, 2006 5:26 pm Reply with quote

English borrows from many languages, certainly Chinese and Hindi and doubtless many others that I should know off-hand but don't. It is the (increasing) phonetic diversity of English that makes it such a powerful tool.

75438.  Sun Jun 18, 2006 5:44 pm Reply with quote

Oh dear, I come back from a weekend away, decide I'll have a quick look at the QI board, and there's a new thread that I could go on about for hours. But don't worry guys, I won't - I'll settle for a couple of quick points.

1. It is of course true that English is not terribly phonemic (strictly speaking, "phonemic" is the correct word here, but I won't go there right now) - the correspondence between spelling and pronunciation is lower than in most languages. Surprisingly few languages are utterly phonemic, but English is further from it than most. French is one-way phonemic - if you know the rules (notably, that there are a lot of silent letters) the spelling indicates the pronunciation, but the pronunciation does not indicate the spelling. Icelandic has an even lower spelling / pronunciation correspondence than does English.

My favourite silly English spelling is "ptarmigan". This word comes from Scots Gaelic, where it's "tarmachan". Out of pure silliness, some posh chaps in the 17th century decided it needed to start with a spurious "p" by analogy with Greek. Ptotally ptiresome!

2. The United States does not have an official language - the Constitution is silent on the matter. The proceedings of Congress happen in English, because the first Congress decided so, but this was a narrow decision and some of the original thirteen states expressed a preference for German.

Individual states have the power to declare an official language for the state, and 26 states have declared English to be their sole official language. Pennsylvania had German as a second official language until 1954, and both English and Hawaiian have official status in Hawaii. Louisiana has no official language, but all official documents are made available in French as well as in English. The same is true of Spanish in New Mexico.

Stefan Linnemann
75906.  Tue Jun 20, 2006 6:28 pm Reply with quote

Ad 1.: My intention was merely to point at the origin, rather than to rehash any of the overstated positions on its existence.
Ad 2.:Ok, so it's not the legal official language. My point is, that the people of the USA have no language at all, and speak on average about 0.87 language. Yet, when asked what language they think they are speaknig, most of them will state English, and this I wish to deny most emphatically. They simply can't be bothered to learn it.
And, I reiterate, when you point this out to them, they start yelling "Freedom of Speech", as if any effort on their part of getting it right impinges on their freedom.
Yes, they do so love to claim their freedoms, but when it comes to the concomitant duties, they are suddenly not so keen. And that really gets me, so I may as well apologise right now for bringing it up and restating it ad nauseam in future posts.

75913.  Tue Jun 20, 2006 7:33 pm Reply with quote

Hi Stefan

1. Sure, modern English comes from a wide variety of sources. As a very broad generalisation, most of our grammar is of Germanic origin, with the most obvious exception being the Romance -s plural. New vocabulary in the last thousand years has tended to come from French - there are long lists of French words which have supplanted earlier Germanic words. Again, this is a very broad generalisation indeed, and neither stands up to the sort of close scrutiny I would give it should it be presented as an exam answer!

I think it unlikely that any of the early people of Britain had a written language of which we do not know - but by definition it's impossible to state categorically that it is not so.

2. For the present time, I am prepared to accept that the main language spoken in the USA is in fact English. Come back in 200 years or so and I might need to reconsider* ...

It isn't identical to the stuff spoken in England, but it's no more different from the speech of the Queen than are some of the odder dialects spoken within Britain (Shetland Islands English for instance). To say that Americans cannot speak English is no more valid than to say that the Flemish speaking Belgians cannot speak Dutch. They can - they just do it slightly differently.

* What I mean here is that it may have diverged sufficiently from British English to be considered a different language. There is also the increasing incidence of Spanish in the USA, but I am not one of those who claims that in 30/50/100 years time Spanish will be the dominant language of the US. If this ever happens, it will take much longer.

75915.  Tue Jun 20, 2006 11:52 pm Reply with quote

I think I seem to remember it being metioned, maybe at a series 2 filming that there is no other language like English because we use a great deal of flection in our speech were as other languages use differant word to describe the emotion. I may be wrong though, I don't think it made it to air so I can't back up my claims. It may ave been on one of Stephen Fry's tangents about his Grandfather and Peter Thagerus

76281.  Thu Jun 22, 2006 5:53 pm Reply with quote

If Stephen actually said "flection" then he was not correct. "Flection", which in simple terms means the use of prefixes and/or suffixes for grammatical reasons, is less used in English than in most European languages. Everyone here did French in school and was made to learn stuff like "je parle, tu parles, il parle ..." That's flection.

What he might have meant was intonation. In English we use intonation to make it clear what we mean. Suppose I ask "are you coming". I might mean are you in fact coming since you said that you weren't - are you coming? Or I might mean is it you and not someone else that is coming - are you coming? Or I might mean are you coming or just staying sat on your ass - are you coming?

In many European languages, this doesn't happen and the difference is expressed by wording the question differently. That may be what Stephen was driving at. Other languages use inflection but in different ways - English spoken with Polish intonation would sound a bit terse, while Polish spoken with English intonation would sound as though you were being sarcastic. Except in Russia, this area of linguistics has not been studied in as much depth as many other parts of the subject - hence Russian intonation is well documented while that of some other major languages really isn't.

In other parts of the world, words are distinguished by intonation. The various forms of Chinese are the best known, but there are many others. In such a language, a group of sounds said with a rising voice can mean something completely different from the same group of sounds said with a falling voice.

76284.  Thu Jun 22, 2006 6:00 pm Reply with quote

According to a Chinese friend of my first husband, the word for 'kettle' is almost identical to the word for 'mother in law', but I daresay we need brackett around to confirm or refute that one.

76314.  Fri Jun 23, 2006 12:47 am Reply with quote

suze as I said it was only from memory so the accuracy couldn't be guarenteed, but now you mention it intonation rings a bell aswell.

I'm now getting confused because it's also reviving memories of dogs not having any concept of over there -------->,
and that was Andy Hamilton.

76384.  Fri Jun 23, 2006 9:07 am Reply with quote

suze wrote:
In many European languages, this doesn't happen and the difference is expressed by wording the question differently.

Suze, is the use of word order to change emphasis common? It's certainly the way in my language, and presumably therefore in all the Celtic ones.


Ddaeth hi yma ddoe? (standard form) = Did she come here yesterday?

Ddaeth hi yma ddoe? (in this case only, using stress to differentiate between it and the standard form) = Did she come here yesterday?

Ddoe ddaeth hi yma? = Was it yesterday she came here?

Hi ddaeth yma ddoe? = Was it she who came here yesterday?

Yma ddaeth hi ddoe? = Was it here that she came yesterday?

I bet this is why Irish people say things like, "A good man he is", which would correspond exactly to "Dyn da ydy o" (as opposed to the standard declarative form "Mae o'n ddyn da").

76404.  Fri Jun 23, 2006 11:37 am Reply with quote

Let me see if I can now enter the reply I attempted about an hour ago ...

Many languages do something of the kind. The Welsh system whereby no extra words are needed is not universal, but neither is it unique.

In English we don't use extra words but make the sense clear by means of intonation. In most of the Romance and Germanic languages, we would rearrange the words but also use some extra ones - saying something like (loosely from French) "is it that it was she who was here yesterday?"

Polish (and other Slavic languages) work a bit like Welsh here.

Susza ma kota - Suze has a cat
Susza kota ma - Suze has a cat (as opposed to Britney having one)
Kota ma Susza - The cat is Suze's
Ma Susza kota - Suze does indeed have a cat (as opposed to not having one)
Kota Susza ma - It's a cat that Suze has (not a dog)
Ma kota Susza - Suze has a cat (she hasn't just borrowed it)

This kind of structure is common to most of the Slavic tongues (I think Slovene is different, but I don't speak it) and AFAIK to the Celtic tongues (maybe not Breton, which has many French structures).

76414.  Fri Jun 23, 2006 1:08 pm Reply with quote

That's a marvellous answer, Suze - many thanks to you.

Stefan Linnemann
76415.  Fri Jun 23, 2006 1:10 pm Reply with quote

suze wrote:

Polish (and other Slavic languages) work a bit like Welsh here.

Susza ma kota - Suze has a cat
Susza kota ma - Suze has a cat (as opposed to Britney having one)
Kota ma Susza - The cat is Suze's
Ma Susza kota - Suze does indeed have a cat (as opposed to not having one)
Kota Susza ma - It's a cat that Suze has (not a dog)
Ma kota Susza - Suze has a cat (she hasn't just borrowed it)

This kind of structure is common to most of the Slavic tongues (I think Slovene is different, but I don't speak it) and AFAIK to the Celtic tongues (maybe not Breton, which has many French structures).

In Dutch (same sentences ni same order:)
Suze heeft een kat.
Sze heeft een kat. (emphasis on Suze).
De kat is van Suze.
Suze heeft inderdaad een kat.
Suze heeft een kt. (emphasis on kat.)
Suze hft een kat. (emphasis on heeft, which can also mean the fourth sentence.)

Looking over the Dutch selection earlier today,I noticed very few names that would pose difficulties fo English speakers, allthough they might still baffle sports-comentators. Those few are the aforementioned Kuyt, Mathijsen, Cocu, Heitinga, Maduro and Sneijder. I mean, if they can't pronounce Ruud other than as Rude, there seems little room for hope.

76418.  Fri Jun 23, 2006 1:25 pm Reply with quote

Thanks Stefan

Dutch isn't one of "my" languages, but I'm not surprised to note that the Dutch way is very similar to the English way. It has often been said that, of major languages, Dutch is the most similar to English.

The only serious arguments against that statement come from Scotland (where some maintain that the language they speak is something other than English) and Friesland (but with apologies to those guys, Frisian isn't really a major language - though it is even closer to English than Dutch is).

Given that Dutch is relatively so similar to English, you might wonder why it is considered difficult to learn. The answer is the pronunciation - as noted, Dutch vowels are very tricky for English speakers. The grammar really isn't too bad, from my limited knowledge. (It's the reverse with Polish. I could teach you the Polish sounds in an hour or two - only three or four would give an English speaker much difficulty - but the grammar is fiendish.)

Q to Stefan if I may.

One thing I do know about Dutch is that the way one indicates possession in speech is (or used to be) frowned upon in writing. While everyone says things like "Stefan z'n kat" or "Suze d'r kat", you're not meant to use this in writing and have to write something like "De kat van Stefan". Is this still the case?

Stefan Linnemann
76429.  Fri Jun 23, 2006 3:43 pm Reply with quote

Yes, it is. The one is the official written langauge, which is taught at school, and occasionally also learned there, the other is spoken Dutch and vulgar (in the latin sense). But the good old genitif is still alive and kicking. "Stefans kat.". Even without the elision the contructions you asked abou are still definately wrong in writing: "Dit is Stefan zjin kat." "Dit is Suze haar kat." You'll hear those in less educated areas, and perhaps even see them, but they are definately points off at any exam and likely to adversely affect your applications.


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