Thursday, May 10, 2007

English Good


The prefix to the post is that I thought of the idea while I was reading the New York Times Magazine. I had originally intended just to post these two lines from the "Lives" column last week, and it turned into an essay without a place to actually put in the quotations. So before you read the essay, here is the inspiration. It's from a column by a lady named Lisa Carver and it's about how she had two dysfunctional marriages before settling in with her new boyfriend.

In this one she's describing how her boyfriend is kindof ghetto:
"I know it looks bad. But I also know how bad my good-looking marriage actually was."
The second is just pure brilliance, no explanation required:
"I don't feel bad that this will be my third marriage. Sometimes you have to try out both coasts before you decide Ohio is the place for you"
The Essay

I've come to really appreciate the English language. It's not as pretty as French or Spanish. It doesn't have the cool efficiency of German. But it's a perfect mix of the things that make those languages great. I don't know French well enough to really comment on it, but it sounds pretty. Spanish is a gorgeous language. If you're going to write a love song, you should write it in Spanish. But those languages lack usefullness.

Spanish, for example, doesn't have an allowance for using the possessive sense. (Interestingly, in relation to this post, I couldn't think of a better word to use in place of 'sense' here. The possessive is not a tense. I know it is something, but the word escapes me. Anyhow,) In English you can say "Luke's sister", but in Spanish you have to say "La hermana de Luke", which translates to "the sister of Luke". This is logically unsound as soon as you move to second degree possession. In English you can do the Spaceballs thing where you say "My father's cousin's rommate's girlfriend's uncle's friend gave me this PBA card". You can formulate this senctence on the fly as you think of your father, followed by his cousin, his rommate, his girlfriend, and so on, while you just add the apostrophe s to each person in your mind. In Spanish you have to start at the end of that sentence, nearly impossible to do in general conversation. It would translate basically to "the friend of the uncle of the girlfriend of the rommate of the cousin of my father". That would be impossible to say, first of all, and impossible to understand by the listener even if the speaker could get it out.

I think German gets a bad rap. I would bet that 98% of the German we hear as English speakers is from tapes of Hitler talking to enormous crowds. Hitler was insane to begin with and in front of large crowds he was all into it and yelling and what not. Either that, or people essentially imitating Hitler when exaggerating whatever they're saying in German. I think that's what makes us think German is a language for crazy people. German is not as ugly as we think it is. And It's ridiculously efficient. They have this thing in German where you can just tack words on to other words to say what you mean. I don't know much German, so I may be overstating it, but I get the idea you can do this whenever you want. The only example I know for sure in German is the word "kindergarten" which translates into "children's garden". Since English is Germanic we have that too. Any compound word is proof. "Airplane", "sidebar", "Superman" you get the idea. German words like "bildungsroman" and "schadenfreude" and what not just tack on word after word to get a point across. Incdientally, I managed to spell both of those words correctly on the first try. I looked both of them up to correct what I figured was undoubtedly a misspelling, only to find that both were correct.

I don't remember making a conscious decision to put the right words with the right thoughts, but now I'm almost hyperconscious of it. I didn't notice until someone pointed it out to me when I was in college. I don't even remember what we were talking about, but she said to me, "You choose your words too carefully to say something like that." And she meant it in a pejorative way, which is what made me think about it. I guess it's true. I'm a believer that there is a right word for whatever it is you're trying to say. So finding the right word in the right situation has become something of a life's goal of mine. My personality is such that I strive to say as few words as possible, so efficiency is of utmost importance. (Worth pointing out again, that my e-self is sortof the opposite of my actual self. I really tend to ramble around these posts.) A good example is the use of the word "penultimate". I can't tell you how often I hear the phrase "second to last". At least once a week. Every time I do, I think to myself "you should have said 'penultimate', you ignoramus". Even better than "penultimate" is "antepenultimate", meaning "third to last".

Something else I enjoy is using words in contexts that they don't belong in, or even just downright improperly, and having them make sense anyway. A good example is the word "nonplussed". I usually use it to mean "unhappy" when I know full well that it actually means "perplexed". Interestingly, if you don't know the meaning, then you just assume it means "unhappy", whereas if you do know the meaning, then you get a double dose of meaning, as you know that I mean "unhappy" when in all likelihood the person is probably unhappy because of some level of perplexity.

Here's a bit of text from my old school website on the page about me:
"He told a bunch of people in my class that my middle name was Aloyscious the next day and there was a bit of ongoing happenstance related to that for a few days. Happenstance does not really fit into the context of that sentence, though I doubt anyone would have noticed if I didn't point it out. For the rest of this little diatribe, you'll have to accept the fact that I enjoy using words where they don't belong, or even words that don't exist. I'm not going to point it out any more, fortunately for you.)"
Come to think of it, I also really enjoy sometimes saying things I don't really mean at all, just to emphasize a point. That in itself is the pure definition of "irony", except when I do it sometimes the irony is lost because I assume that people understand that I don't mean what I say even though I've given them no reason to, when in actuality they just go around thinking I'm a dumbass. I guess it's a win-win, though, because they get to think I'm a dumbass, and I get to privately hold it over their heads, thus bringing to fruition the full extent of my passive aggression. (You didn't think I'd write a post on how much I love language without using my favorite word, did you? My favorite word is "fruition", for those who haven't committed my websites from 5 years ago to memory (What's wrong with you?))

Anyway, English rocks, and when used properly is both beautiful and efficient.

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