Archives for posts with tag: English

I was reading a software manual the other day – I know, very rock and roll – and a sentence began ‘To do so, go to…’. All quite legitimate and grammatical. Also, written by an organisation that doesn’t use English as a first language and whose author was Eastern European, betrayed by a few other incidents¬†of phrasing elsewhere in the document.

It got me thinking about our fabled, ancient, and multi-rooted English language, and how impenetrable it must seem to learners of the language. Not of the spoken language, but of the written language. The dictionary must be constantly at hand.

We don’t even think about it as native speakers, but right there you’ve got five two-letter words, all ending in ‘o’. In order, one’s a infinitive prefix, one’s an infinitive verb, one’s a kind of adverbial thingummybob that can mean a bunch of things depending on where it is in the sentence, the next one’s an imperative verb and the last one’s a preposition. Phew!

Not only that, but two of the words have completely different vowel soundings to the others.

They’re testimony to how the language has evolved over the years.

Congratulations to the writer for getting it right, but, boy, we don’t make it easy. I won’t even get started on two, two, sew and sow…

There’s something very comforting about proverbs. They’re rather like a comfy armchair to me, in the way a spreadsheet is to an accountant.

They are the shorthand of our language, as well as a useful guidance to living life by the numbers.

“A stitch in time saves nine.” “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” These phrases have been honed and shaped over time, a little nub of the collective experiences of humankind over the centuries.

They can serve you well in business too, as long as you understand them for what they are. One of my favourite business proverbs is “A rising tide lifts all boats.” It encapsulates the notion that everybody benefits from an improvement across the board.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it. After all, actions speak louder than words. ūüôā

In an earlier post I talked about the differences between American English and British English. One area the two homes of English speaking differ markedly is in pronunciation. ¬†For example, I might say missile, they say ‘missle’.

When you get to polysyllable words, then you’ll often hear the differences. I might say controversy, they might say controversy. I definitely say laboratory, whereas our American friends prefer to put the accent on the first syllable and let the others trail behind like the links of a chain dragged along the ground.

Wherever you choose to place your accent, be aware that it’s a real differentiator, and not just between these two countries. When you get it wrong altogether it signals that the language is not your first choice. ‘It’s really important,’ as a former boss of mine is fond of saying, ‘to put the emphasis on the right syllable.’

When I was 17, I was very lucky.  My first flight ever was to the US (from the UK) for 2 weeks on an educational study tour of the north east of the US and Canada.  It was run by Guardian Overseas Education, a long since defunct wing of the eponymous newspaper.

As part of the tour, we were asked to right a short essay about some aspect of our trip.  Since the trip was during my Easter break, the last thing I wanted to do was write a short essay.  I was however, doing latin and greek at school, and have always been interested in language.  Not necessarily speaking it, but from a more structural point of view, concerning grammar, syntax, etymology and the like.

Various luminaries such as Shaw and Wilde have ¬†described the US and Britain as ‘two countries divided by a common language’. ¬†(Let’s not get into a further division, namely that of British English into English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh versions. ¬†That’s the topic of a further post.) This is even more true these days, and will continue to be so as the two languages develop, despite the massive unifying efforts of the Internet and instantaneous global media. ¬†Language change is constant, and it’s not good or bad, it’s just change, which characterises all living things.

On my trip, it was my etymological leanings that led me to notice that American english in some cases seemed to favour a more latin-derived word over one with perhaps more anglo-saxon origins. ¬†I remember writing that the Americans would use ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’, ‘suspenders’ for ‘braces’ and ‘vacation’ for ‘holiday’, and that this seemed like an eminently sensible way of going about things. ¬†I also remember the trip organisers being distinctly underwhelmed by my essay, but I’m going with it anyway.

This tendency, along with the US habit of ‘izing’ words like ‘productize’ and ‘awesomize‘, seems to make American english more accessible than British english to those for whom english is not their first language. ¬†A huge factor is also the universality of American english, from its arts and media output, the sheer number of Americans on the planet and their hegemony as an economic, political – and therefore linguistic – powerhouse.

Let’s face it, the english we’ve all inherited is a pretty irregular and complex language, and so any moves towards people being able to converse in it more easily should be applauded.