Lovely Language Geekdom

I’m up to 44 print-ready pages on the Language Clinic, and I’m not even halfway. The Language-Building Clinic was supposed to be a single chapter in the Worldbuilding Clinic book, but it’s expanding wildly.

Here’s a snippet from today’s work.

The English Issue, From the Language Builder’s Perspective

The problem with having English as your first language, from the language builder’s perspective, is that English is a language that never met a word it didn’t like.

It got its birth as the Norman soldier’s attempt to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids, and the Norman tongue had been pretty promiscuous even before that. It started out when Roman Latin kept illicit company with Germanic nouns and African adjectives and Greek verbs and a whole lot more, kept a little of this, a bit of that, and some of everything else, squeezed the whole mess into mostly-regular Latin grammar, bred like mad, and then tore across western Europe spreading civilization and what would become all the Romance languages—Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and so on—before falling into disarray and disuse.

Centuries passed, while its clan of offspring shifted and evolved.

Then Latin’s child Old French, carried by invading Normans, met my blue-painted intransigent Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxon ancestor horde, and in the crash, all of Latin’s beautiful, logical rules broke, and Normans with their squishy Latinate multi-syllable soft sounds careened into rough-edged Celts and the advent of four-letter words that only had four letters.

Since then, English, the bastard child of frequent and messy cultural collisions, has gone on to add words from every other language on the planet that ever had an idea it didn’t already contain. It has freely coined words when its speakers came up with concepts for which there were no words. It has cheerfully embraced, and then co-opted, and frequently mangled, the grammars and vocabularies of other places and peoples, under the absolute certainty that even though there were already a hundred ways to say “Dinner was great,” having a hundred and one ways would be better.

English speakers have never accepted the limitations of the language. They have always just built more language to accommodate their needs, and then encouraged everyone else to jump onboard. Think Silicon Valley and the explosion of techie terms as a recent example of this. English goes anywhere and does anything, never takes No! for an answer, and even though it’s a beast to learn well, can be picked up in a workable basic form by just about anyone, anywhere, using tons of words new speakers already know (because English raided their language for vocabulary a century or five ago.)

Every rule in English has an exception, or half a dozen of them, every part of speech has sections that have been tacked on like body parts to Frankenstein’s monster, and everything you can say one way, you can say at least a dozen other ways, and probably closer to a hundred.

Because of this, English speakers (and therefore English-speaking language builders) have built into their subconscious minds this inherent linguistic sense that anything is possible, that the language rules are really just general guidelines, that such rules as exist are mostly made to be broken, and that these rules certainly need not apply to them if they don’t want them to.

Pause here for a moment. Consider what I said at the beginning of this course about a language being the soul of its people.

See what I mean?

There’s considerably more, but I thought this bit was fun.

image_pdfDownload as PDFimage_printPrint Page

About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

11 comments… add one
  • learn chinese Sep 18, 2010 @ 7:57

    You got a really useful weblog I have been right here reading through for around an hour. I’m the novice as well as your post is useful personally.

  • shawna May 24, 2006 @ 20:59

    Ouch. I like that. Never thought about it quite that way… but I like it.

  • Gabriele May 24, 2006 @ 17:10

    “…English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    So, that‘s what happened to Schadenfreude. 😉

    Fun article, Holly.

  • Rick May 24, 2006 @ 15:31

    This sounds fantastic. I’ll definitely be ordering a print copy. 🙂

  • colorbird May 24, 2006 @ 12:53

    Oh, that’s hilarious!

  • hollylisle May 24, 2006 @ 12:38

    Noel–that’s a wonderful quote. (And for everyone else who’d never read this, some info on its creator, James D. Nicoll, whom I immediately hunted down. Sounds like my kind of guy.)

  • NoelFigart May 24, 2006 @ 12:36

    *grin* You might enjoy this quote…

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
    – James D. Nicoll

  • PJ May 24, 2006 @ 11:32

    HA! 🙂 My etymology professor would have loved this! I can’t wait to read the rest!

    ~PJ~

  • hollylisle May 24, 2006 @ 11:27

    Either way, languages have been born through some decidedly off-color processes, and English certainly has a genealogy to raise eyebrows.

  • PolarBear May 24, 2006 @ 11:05

    OK. Porn was too strong a term. Lasciviousness comes to mind, though.

  • PolarBear May 24, 2006 @ 11:04

    Well, if language had been presented as porn, I might have found it much more interesting to discover other languages than my own. (Perhaps I’m stretching the analogy a bit, but I’m not sure I can read this post at work. ) Sounds like you’re having fun with this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.