Anyone who has attempted to or mastered a second language can tell you it is hard grasp the idea that other languages do not include the word do or the ending ing. English grammar dictates that we answer the question “what are you doing?”, with” I am reading”. The translation from all other languages would be “I read”. Of course the person would also wonder what you mean be doing. Doing is not translatable in any other tongue. Once we understand that English is the oddball when it comes to case endings and verb placement it is a little easier to learn another language. But since we are not taught that our language is the only one who dropped gender nouns, case endings and moved our verbs we have a hard time learning foreign languages. Our brains have been trained to think and speak unlike anyone else on the planet. We should understand that when someone says “I read”, they are not uneducated they are speaking they way they were taught.
Fun facts I just learned: The words: beef, pork, bacon and poultry are French terms used by the English royalty during the Middle Ages. After the Norm Conquest of 1066, royalty, the courts and nobles spoke and corresponded in French. The peasants spoke what is now called Old English. Royal chefs did not cook cow, he/she would have served beef. Nor would the upper nobility eat chicken or pig; they would eat pork, bacon or poultry (spelled poultier). Over the years these words would come to mean what is cooked. We may still raise cows, pigs and chickens but we serve beef, pork and poultry. I had always thought the meat industry came up with these words to order to sell us on the idea of eating animal flesh on a daily basis. I love facts like this!
The reason I bring all of this up is because I am reading two good books on the history of the English language. I am also seriously looking into learning Old English; it would be a great tool as I study the Middle Ages and would help me master German.
The first book I picked up on the history of English is Bill Byrson’s The Mother Tongue. Bryson is a master at nonfiction. No matter what the subject, he manages to make it interesting and fun. One of his skills is taking a complicated subject and watering it down just enough to appeal to a layman but not so much that you feel as if you are being talked down too. Sometimes when I watch the History Channel’s The Universe, with all their computer graphics and prop driven explanations I wonder who their attended audience is, a bunch of fifth graders? Bryson never makes a reader feel dumb. If anything his writing reminds us that yes we can learn hard subjects if only someone would explain them in plain terms.
The second book I picked up is John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. McWhorter’s work is a nice complement to Bryson’s as this book looks a little bit deeper at the history of our language and why ours is the oddball. It is a little on the dry side, though he does attempt some humor. The only complaint I have is slight, and is my fault. Because he is a linguistic he uses terms I am unfamiliar with. My knowledge of grammar rules and terms is woefully inadequate. I am desperately trying to catch up but at times I am bogged down with terms and explanations. Bryson explains things in terms I can understand and Mcwhorter takes it to the next level. If you are a grammar nut I highly recommend these two books. If not, perhaps the book I received in the mail yesterday may appeal to you.
I love Bram Stoker’s Dracula; I have read it three times. Two years ago I learned he wrote a collection of short stories and Penguin Classics put them together in Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. I had this book on my wishlist over at Paperback Swap and earlier this week another member posted it. I am hoping to read it this weekend.
So here is a call to all my grammar nut followers: do you have a favorite grammar book? Have you mastered anther language? If so, I want to hear from you.