Category Archives: English

English is easy

English is supposed to be easy but it often fails to make sense, especially the spelling. For example, Christmas is a good time to wind down, like a mechanical clock, to gradually relax and stop working. But the same word is used for the movement of air: “the wind blows”. Now there is a kind of rule in English which says that the sound of a vowel like  “i” and the name of the letter “i” can change if there is an “e” following the next letter. For example, a small piece of carpet on the front door step of a home is called a mat, with the “a” pronounced as a sound and not the name. But if an “e” is added to the end, the word becomes mate, with the “a” sounding its name. Mate is a common word for friend. On this basis “wind” (as in to wind a clock), should be spelt wined, which it is when used as the past tense in the phrase “wine and dine” (drink wine and eat food”. So, we wined and dined together in a restaurant. All this goes to show that, if it is rules you need, don’t look to English.

In fact I predict that one particularly solid rule, that of “mass” or “uncountable” nouns will soon cease to exist. It is supposed to work like this: if you can count something, for example “cars” then you say that there are “fewer” cars, not “less” cars. Less is reserved for things which you cannot count, for example “water”. You can count glasses of water, litres of water and even drips or drops of water but water alone is not countable. Neither can you count “rice”, which comes in sacks, bags or grains. What brought this to the attention of the public was the sign placed on the express checkouts of Tesco supermarkets. It stated “ten items or less”. As the grammar police were quick to point out, you can count items just as you can count cars, so the phrase should be “ten items or fewer”. Tesco changed all the signs, but that could be the very last time the grammar police could claim a victory. Since that time I am acutely aware of just how often “less” and “fewer” are interchanged, without any reference to the rule. Even in the printed word of the BBC or the Guardian, the “rule” is broken, and even more frequently in the speech of experts (though clearly not grammar experts). This rule is set to disappear and only be missed by people like me.

In fact the Grammar Police (which don’t actually exist) are on shaky ground. The elderly among you may well remember the opening phrase of the first series of the TV programme Star Trek”. It states “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. The offence, if it existed, was to put the “boldly” between “to” and “go”, so called “splitting the infinitive” (with “go” being the infinitive of the irregular verb GO). Actually the rule about splitting the infinitive never existed in English. The over-educated who spoke Latin claimed it on the basis of the rule in Latin. They seem to have forgotten that in Latin, the infinitive is just one word, so couldn’t be split in any cases.

All of this leads me to the suspicion that, in order to fulfil its role as the global language, English will have to accelerate its pace of change. One way to do this would be to adopt more words from other languages. By my observation, English speakers already have an affinity to short words, and I mean short in terms of syllables. For example “zeitgeist” (two syllables) is normally used instead of the more English phrase “spirit of the time” (five syllable). Similarly “leitmotiv” (three syllables) instead of “persistent underlining theme” (eight). Possible the best example is “Schadenfreude”. This four syllable word replaces a complete phrase which has too many syllables to count (actually 16), but which means “a feeling of pleasure at seeing somebody else’s failure”. The list of these short words co-opted into English (or do I mean stolen) is long. Think “poltergeist” (three) for malevolent spirit (six) or Geisterfahre (four) for the English “person driving the wrong way on the motorway (12). Clearly English is changing faster than ever and sometimes its hard to keep up.


Out with Britain, in with English.

Anybody who thinks that Britain out of the EU will diminish the role of English in Europe could be in for a rude awakening. Though at the moment the EU is working in German, French and English and some have suggested that now is the time for Spanish to replace English at the top table, the opposite is more likely. English can finally take the role of THE official  EU language. The reason is quite clear, Europe needs one voice. It can’t be German, the French wouldn’t have it. It can’t be French, nobody really speaks it outside France and Spanish, with 45 million in Europe, just doesn’t have the numbers.  But English without Britain would be neutral, with none of the major EU players gaining a language advantage. Plus of course it is the child of a coupling between the German Anglo Saxon and the French of ancient Normandy with just enough words from other languages, from Italy to Scandinavia, to give everybody a stake. Who could ask for a better compromise? And there is a good precedent for an external language to be adopted as the official one. The world’s newest country, South Sudan, an area the size of France but with 100 local languages, has chosen English as its official one. Why? As the news director of the South Sudan Radio, Rehan Abdelnebi, said, “we can become one nation. We can iron out our tribal differences and communicate with the rest of the world”.

Countries which could benefit from the adoption of English include divided Cyprus and divided Ireland where only 10% of the population speak the Irish, as well as the whole of Scandinavia where the standard of English is often better than that of England.

In any case, those trying to maintain their current language with rules and laws are probably doomed to fail. There is no escaping the fact that English is so popular because it is easy. As a young Slovak told me recently, “we learn English, German and Slovak in school, but Slovak is over, it’s too difficult”. How long before young Germans come to the same conclusion? Have the French decided yet if WiFi is masculine or feminine? As though it really matters.

All this begs the question of exactly why nations have official languages which so few speak, for example Ireland where 10% speak Irish but as a second language. Clearly it comes from a political need to create a nation, to be different. Whereas of course the truth is that, other than being told they are Irish, they are just Europeans, like everybody else.






Letter to a German politician

Dear Jens Spahn,
First let me apologies for writing to you in English. I fully understand your concerns regarding the use of English. In my defence I can only say that, as a 71 year old resident of Vienna I find that every time I attempt to speak German I am responded to in English. Even when I asked “Haben Sie Kohlsprossen” the response from the Gemüsehändler was, in English ” I think it is too early in the season”.

The problem, which, as a well educated German mother tongue speaker you have, is that you just don’t recognise the complexity of your native language. You also fail to realise that English is fundamentally a German dialect, as is Dutch and other derivatives including local forms where, in spoken form, all nouns take the masculine.

Languages are not prisons, they are a method of communication and the easier that is, the better for everybody. People adopt words which they find useful, hence the appearance of “Zeitgeist” and “Schadenfreude” in English. These German words are better than the English equivalent, shorter and more precise and so the language adapts and incorporates them.

I could write more and in fact have done so within my blog but may I close with this. It is not the strong which survive, but the most adaptable. That goes for languages just as with species.
ps. Why is so much of the worlds economy in the hands of the USA? One market, 350million people, one language. That is a great place to start a business.

The Hans Christian Andersen effect.

The simple stories of Hans Christian Andersen  are brilliantly apposite to many aspects of modern society but for me, the best is the Emperors Suit of Clothes. it really fits to modern politics, but even more so to the use of English. If you find that strange, consider this. Very many people have a pretty good standard of spoken English. Written English is a different matter. In an attempt to appear competent, many people trip themselves up by using too many words, and confusing the meanings. Unfortunately, many recipients of those sentences are not exactly 100% certain of the meaning. However, (and this is where HCA comes in), just like the courtiers in his story they are afraid to speak up and ask in case they are shown to be less than competent themselves. “It must be correct, he is my teacher/boss/ etc”

It is not only none native speakers who frequently get it wrong. Look at this from the BBC website:-

“Nestled in a mountainous corner of Atlantic Europe, they also show distinct genetic patterns to their neighbours in France and Spain”.

What does it mean? At face value it means that they reveal to their neighbours their distinct genetic patterns.

But of course that is not correct. What the writer means is:-

Nestled in a mountainous corner of Atlantic Europe, they have genetic patterns distinct from their neighbours.

In case you were wondering, the article is about the Basques of North East Spain.

If English really does have a role as an international language it needs to be written accurately otherwise we might have to adopt Ido for precision, though with only 200 speakers worldwide, it might take a long time.