You would think I have better things to think about on New Year’s Day, but I don’t. This thought has been rattling around in my head for a while. It started months ago when I reflected on the local grocery store cashiers who flip seamlessly back and forth between English and Spanish, something I find impressive in so many ways.
Sometime recently I read an article about why English is such a difficult language to learn, even for native speakers of English. Now I can’t find it, and so can’t properly cite it, but it did lead me into a brief study of its history. It’s a wonder that any of us can learn it. Built on intermingled layers of Celtic, Germanic, and Romantic roots, it lacks any reasonable measure of consistency in grammar, spelling, or usage. In high school they tried to get us to use the rules of Latin grammar, but the more flexible customary way of writing won out. The problem is that customary ways of doing things follow a host of unwritten rules that are in a constant state of flux.
If grammar is a moveable target, how about spelling? As one writer pointed out, unlike other countries, we have spelling bees. The erratic nature of English spelling allows bees to become a competitive sport. And then there are different meanings for the same word, and homophones that sound alike but have unrelated meanings. Consider bees, the word I just used. We have be, a verb; bee, an insect; bee, a gathering of quilters; bee, a spelling contest; anything else? How is anyone supposed to learn all of that.
Idioms. I love idioms. They constitute their own theater of the absurd. Years ago I worked with a well educated colleague from Columbia who spoke fluent American English. One would never guess she was not a native speaker, until she came out with curiously inappropriate idioms that were often funny, especially in uptight business meetings. Terribly embarrassed, she would wait for a private moment to ask us to explain what had happened. Around here, farmers and ranchers happily use idioms to keep city folks off balance, which they do with both a twinkle and a smirk.
Imported vocabulary adds to complexity. American English is salted with hundreds of Spanish words, except in Hawaii. There it’s salted with Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, and its own version of Pigeon. Some Brits are fond of adding whole phrases that sound like French to the middle of sentences. Maybe they are.
Have you ever tried to understand what a Cockney taxi driver is saying? English does not have dialects as such, but its variety of accents can make one speaker all but unintelligible to another. We enjoy traveling in England where we share a common language, except where local accents obliterate our ability to hear the words that we share in common. I imagine that our American accent is painful to their ears, but what can we do? On a recent trip back to New York City, I was reminded of how painful a certain nasal LonG EyeLand accent is to my ears.
Well, English is what I’m stuck with. It’s the only language with which I have any fluency, and that’s debatable.