McCabe: Awful English

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James McCabe

Mark Twain once made fun of the German language. In the centenary year of his death, it is appropriate to remind everybody of an important fact: English can be even more confusing.

The frequent use of separable verbs, grammatical gender, sentence construction or pronoun inflection – that’s what Mark Twain made fun of in his famous essay of 1880, “The Awful German Language”. But in the centenary year of his death, perhaps an equally light-hearted look at the awful English language might not go amiss among the frustrated hordes of German engineers and managers battling with it.

English has four classic qualifications as a global medium of business transaction – the world’s widest vocabulary, a limited number of inflections, natural gender and multi-functionality. The unique combination of these qualities has spread the language like wildfire around the globe.

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But for these four pluses English has two massive minuses – spelling and idiom. Once you add to this the never-ending ambiguities of polysemy and the chronic distinctions between American and English, you’ve got a serious lifelong threat to your Germanic sense of order and precision.

The English word “set” has 67 dictionary definitions. For example, it means “encounter”, “attack”, “harden”, “fix”, “incline”, “build”, “arrange” or “position”. Can’t find the right word in English? Just say “set” and your meaning is guaranteed.

This ambiguity rate even extends to opposites carrying the same meaning (“shameless” and “shameful”; “flammable” and “inflammable”) as well as homophones carrying opposite meanings (“raise” and “raze”) and contronyms carrying totally contradictory meanings (“cleave” meaning to split apart or join together, “patronize” meaning to support or condescend).

In a well-known example often attributed to Irishman George Bernard Shaw, the English word FISH may just as well be spelt GHOTI (that’s GH as in rough; O as in women; TI as in station). A single four-letter sequence in this tongue has at least nine different pronunciations, largely captured in the tongue-twister “I plough on thoroughly through the rough although I cough and hiccough.” As Voltaire once noted,“To speak English, one must place the tongue between the teeth, and I have lost my teeth.”

In “The Awful German Language”, Twain concludes by recommending a series of surgical reforms, including the removal of that appendix of the language – the dative: “It confuses the plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discovers it by accident.”

But what about the stress system of English, mashing up German root stress and the movable stress of classical languages (FRIEND, FRIENDly, FRIENDliness when Germanic but PHOtograph, phoTOGraphy, photoGRAPHical if Greek or Latin)?

A mad world

Yes indeed, it’s a mad world. For every letter we have more than one sound, for every sound more than one letter. As a poor time-starved German manager, how do you intend to command and control the 11 different expressions of our sound: shirt, sugar, chute, action, issue, ocean, conscious, mansion, schwa, anxious, special?

The Crazy English movement in China may be one solution. Led by Li Yang, this involves shouting English out from the top of your office block during lunch hour, and gathering together for mass rallies in elocution.

But my hottest tip to discover the method in all this madness is to buy yourself a monolingual English dictionary including etymology such as The Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin spoke for millions of global users when he wrote: “It was the small words that defeated me, prepositions, conjunctions, articles and pronouns. I could never understand which went where and, after much study with little result, I made up my mind I’d get along without them as far as possible.”

Spoken English consists almost entirely of German words pronounced wrongly. Mastering English thus involves unlearning or relearning your own language in a curious way. Take mental possession of your linguistic birthright, but remember this new lingo doesn’t always do what it says on the box.

If that sentence that you’re just about to mail sounds right, it’s probably wrong. If it sounds funny, it’s almost certainly correct. 

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