Category Archives: Society

English – Time to add a little more German?

Say it quick(ly) and write fast may be the way we communicate now, but if you think that efficiency is the driver of language development, as attested by the Oxford English Dictionary, you would be wrong. Their so-called development of the language, 650 words added in March 2019, is just a hobby for academics and far removed from the reality of the down and dirty evolution which it taking place all around us.

If you really want to witness a language developing look no further than German. Not the grammar of course, where the introduction of three genders randomly allocated to nouns was reputedly created by God in order to slow them down and stop them taking over the world, but in the creation of new words based solely on efficiency or, to put it simply, why use a long word when a short one will do?

Now anybody familiar with German will now be screaming denial, after all, German is the home of such amazingly long words as:Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft(80 characters) which for those unfamiliar with the language means:

Association for Subordinate Officials of the Head Office Management of the Danube Steamboat Electrical Services (100 characters).

So the German is actually shorter – and even shorter when considering the way we say words since they are not pronounced letter by letter but syllable by syllable. Here the German is a clear winner, 24 syllables in German, 34 in English.

In fact, English can be considered the home of brevity with translations from German usually being shorter, though there are outstanding contradictions. “Zeitgeist” with two syllables is infinitely more efficient than the English “spirit of the times” with five and has earned a rightful place in the English dictionary and all the quality newspapers.

In fact, comparing the efficiency of words base on syllables, German might have quite a lot to offer. A favourite of mine is “Umwelt” (2) for environment (4) (limited though to the natural world) which has immediately spawned a new German word “unweltfighter” (4) for environmental activist (8). On this basis of course it is clear why the Titanic struck an iceberg and not an ice mountain. It was all to do with efficiency.

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Let’s talk about ostracism.

Let’s talk about ostracism.

Facebook is doing it, ancient Athens did it. Isn’t it about time we all embraced the one idea which could save our democracy? Put simply, Ostracism means excluding somebody from society. In the case of Facebook, it simply means stopping them from posting on the app. In ancient Greece it meant banishing them from the country.

To quote Wikipedia, “while some instances clearly expressed popular anger at the person, ostracism was often used pre-emptively, as a way of neutralizing someone thought to be a threat to the state or potential tyrant.”

Now I would be the first to admit that this might be just a little contentious, especially under international law where it is forbidden to make somebody stateless, but the benefits could be considerable.

First let’s consider the class of those to be considered. Much as I see no point in Neil Hamilton, the bribe taking former (although at it again through UKIP and the European Parliament – salary £78,000 pa) MP, ostracism would be too much. Quiet contempt works better here I think.  However, the self-appointed kingmaker Rupert Murdoch, he of News International and Fox in the USA is a different case. Here is a man deigning all knowledge of his employees’ phone tapping exploits then being recorded saying that “we all do it”. How he didn’t go to prison for perjury is a mystery to me. The good news is that he is old, even older than me, so he can’t publish his poison for much longer. Of course, Boris Johnson is a potential for the exit door. This Eton and Oxford educated US/UK citizen and would-be leader of the Conservative party spread lies and misinformation about the EU for many years before actually not standing for the leadership of the Conservative party, finally realising that being Prime Minister might actually involve some work other than that of a stand up comedian. This is the man who actually has US citizenship but said that the US would never join a Union. “You idiot, the US is a Union”.

Of course, there are many more for whom I consider ostracism to be appropriate. Naturally Nigel F*!+%@ springs to mind, dangerous bully with little appetite for either the truth or common decency. Then again Britain’s worst Prime Minister David Cameron, “Austerity, we are all in it together”, he from a school which costs £26,000 per year whilst state schools lack books with which to teach. This list is probably endless so why not think of your own particular favourite nominee for this ancient custom. Time for a revival.

The Far Right of German politics

Far Right and Far Left are political terms which are hard to clearly define. For the vociferous left of centre, Far Right is one step away from Fascism, the movement which killed around 30 million people, whilst for the right of centre Far Left is next to communism, the movement which also killed around 30 million, though in both cases the numbers vary depending on who is counting

So, as a centrist liberal I cannot but be shocked that I agree, in part, with the German so called “Far right AfD chairperson Dr Alice Weidel, when she said that the whole Brexit mess was due to the EU since David Cameron failed to get any meaningful concessions from the EU prior to the calling of the Brexit referendum. Though I am a committed European and understand the economic benefits of immigration I can understand that the reason for the vote for Brexit was first and foremost immigration. Too many people too quickly. It doesn’t matter that there was a persistent hint of racism and nationalism in the vote. Too many, too quickly settled that matter. Unfortunately Dr Weidel then continued to make unsubstantiated claims which, as far as I am concerned, destroyed her credibility but probably pleased her supporters. As the Nation Union of Journalists say “never let the truth spoil a good story”.

The other Brexit reasons are riding on the coat tails of immigration. Does anybody know what loss of sovereignty actually means? Who in Britain has suffered from a lack of sovereignty apart from the little fish who want to be bigger fish in a UK free from the constraints of the EU? Who will actually benefit? Workers? Clearly not, financial speculators, probably.

It is abundantly clear that the EU is not perfect and that urgent reform is necessary. Let’s be frank, any parliament which has to move itself completely for four days once a month to a different city is nothing short of ridiculous. Quite how that continues is beyond me. Yet for Britain to leave is equally crazy. Unfortunately, we are manged by politicians when what we need are statesmen, people with the clear sightedness and personality to achieve results which will inspire rather than embarrass. Britain should take the lead in EU reform and not slink away to become a kind of 51stState of the American Union the land of opportunity, as long as you are rich.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

A confession of sorts

One of the worst things about getting older (or being old) is no the stiff back or dodgy knee, not the lack of energy or the insomnia, it is, for me, the inability to drink alcohol in anything other than in semi abstemious quantities. Not that I have ever been what might be termed, a serious drinker. I have known some who could enthusiastically consume eight pints of beer in a couple of hours, others who could drink the entire night away on a few of bottles of vodka or gin at least, but for me, at maximum, two bottles of wine spread over a dinner party was the high point of my drinking career which I reached in my early ‘30’s. Since reaching 65 it has been, as they say, “downhill all the way”. Last night is a case in point. A warm, early summer, evening after a hot and sunny day. Time to relax and have a drink. An Aperol with dry white wine, some ice, topped up some sparking water. Excellent. One hour later I am unconscious on the sofa only to return to semi consciousness two hours later with a heavy head and a feeling of regret, not for the heavy head but for the fact that I didn’t manage at least two drinks.

The problem is you see that I like to drink, though for the taste more than the feeling. That glass of English bitter, the Aperol spritzer, the Campari orange, the Cointreau frappe, a glass of Port, a whisky Mac, a cold Gewürztraminer with strawberries, Cote de Rhone with lamb (you see, no wine snob me) a Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, a bitter sweet Ice Wine, the list is almost endless, fully inclusive save Champagne, which for me is grossly over rated. My drinking style was not that of the patient sipper, delicately dipping a tongue or moistening the lips, no, I had always been a quaffer, enthusiastically gulping whatever is in my glass, very low class. Now I have to sip with the rest, delicately ensuring that a solitary glass lasts, at the least, the main course of a meal. Let us hope that the next glass is, at least, a large one.

 

Wanted, a European city willing to embrace the future.

As countless newspaper stories will tell you, including this one from the FT https://www.ft.com/content/981379a8-f58f-11e7-88f7-5465a6ce1a00 the world is moving to English. Like it or not (and many do not) it is certain. Now is the time to for a European city to become officially bilingual . Of course English is widely spoken in many European counties and in any city it is possible to get by without a word of the local tongue but still, English is not “official” anywhere but Dublin or Valletta. So how about it Bratislava, or Prague? Your young people are great in English so why not make it official and embrace the future before somebody else gets with the program and pips you to the finish, scooping up all the businesses that want to work there but can’t because of the language barrier (particularly true of Vienna). Remember, it is not the strong that survive (despite the pop song that tells you it is), it is the adaptable!

One reason that smaller countries are better at English than the big ones is of course TV. The big ones, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, take International programmes, American mostly, and  actually dub the programmes into the local language thereby ensuring that English language will not get a dangerous foothold into the national psyche. The smaller countries and just add subtitles thereby ensuring that the general population (at least those who can read) are at least used to the sound of English, often from a very young age

The trend towards gender neutrality in language probably marks the end of German as we know it today. With no Der, Die, Das the grammar will collapse leaving it with, yes you’ve guess it, English, which is itself a German dialect made simple for all the Anglo Saxons and Norman French forced to live together!

Some have predicted that with Britain out of the EU and the US retreating globally, English will diminish in acceptance. In fact, the contrary is the case. English can now be considered neutral, giving no country the edge in language. Take the case of the world’s latest state, South Sudan. With over 120million people and 100 languages the official language is, yes, you have guessed it again, English.

It’s a long time since I wrote this blog and as I do so it I remember my long time friend and accountant Steve Baldwin. He always gave me feedback on my writings and his recent death, following a short illness is a tragedy.