man with union jacks

Think You've Mastered English? Read This.

Christopher Fowler

 This is not a piece designed to show off clever long words, but to reveal that English is more complex than you'd imagine. In the process we'll go from Virginia Woolf to Tom Jones. Follow me there. An article republished from a US journal appeared in the Guardian this morning. Researchers have been trying to understand why the evolution of English is so random.
The grammar of negating a sentence has changed from "Ic ne secge" (Beowulf, c. 900) to "Ic ne sege noht" (the Ormulum, c. 1100) to "I seye not" (Chaucer, c. 1400) to "I doe not say" (Shakespeare, c. 1600) before returning to the familiar "I don't say" (Virginia Woolf, c. 1900). So far, it's as you'd expect. Then we hit the puzzle of past-tense verbs. They're changing, and nobody knows why.
"Woke" is increasingly preferred over "waked" and "lit" more popular than "lighted", while "weaved" and "snuck" are on track to eventually overtake "wove" and "sneaked", along with "quit" over "quitted" and "leaped" over "leapt". Language generally changes towards the regular form because it's easier to remember, but there's a rise in the irregular form of the past tense. Okay, so language changes and not always in the way you'd think - it should simplify, not become more complicated. This is American research, and US language is both more precise and more verbose, especially in its academic form, which is often compared to late Victorian prose. Much of it has a stiffness and formality which does not sit easily on the UK tongue. Conversely, we play fast and loose with language, treating it with confidence but also with disrespect. In today's Times, there was a piece about Banksy's art being hidden in the National Gallery, and 'fears that it has now been pinched.' It's inconceivable that this sentence would ever have appeared in the New York Times - but while we break down linguistic barriers we tend to honour (and obsess about) correct structure. You'll note that even in It's inconceivable that this sentence would ever have appeared there's a contraction and a complex past conditional at work. The mix 'n' match thing seems to come naturally. Anyone who has flicked through the Viz Profanisaurus will know how outrageously imaginative the general public can be when it comes to sexual euphemism. 'To keep the lid of his sauce bottle clean' is an example that does not derive from a direct sexual connotation but operates as linguistic code for being gay, which is sometimes associated with tidiness; an untidy person leaves the dry bit on the top of a sauce bottle. So it also has working class links; a bottle set on a table. But it has other links too, to phrases like 'knows the names of the flowers in his garden', which suggests preciousness and unmanliness. No wonder they say that the US and the UK are countries separated by a common language. Much of our linguistic fluidity is down to the incorporation of elements outside our language taken from simple observation and popular culture. In this way UK English works more like Yiddish or even German, where there's a special word for 'the feeling you get in your fingertips'. Cultural magpieing can be heard in the language of the English upper and middle classes, who are comfortable inserting Latin, French and German words into everyday conversation, while tabloid language pioneered by papers like The Sun reduce sentences to single syllable strings. Mark Forsyth has built a career on the study of language with books like 'The Etymologicon'. He suggests words we could bring back. I rather like 'pectination', meaning to sit with one's fingers interlaced (the Latin for a comb was pectin). It suggests patience, and also waiting something out. Of course the rediscovery of marvellous old words is perfect for Mr Arthur Bryant, who uses them largely to annoy. But using funny old words for their novelty value doesn't push them back into the linguistic limelight. Mainstream English eschews novelty, and ruthlessly edits itself. It's been said that a popular baking programme (how it pains me to even type that) called 'Great British Bake-Off' is a microcosm of Middle England, exuding warmth, fair play and inclusion. If elitism has an antonym, it's this show. But as Sky and Glyndebourne introduce The Opera Cup, an upmarket X-Factor show of great arias, the channel is being accused of removing the barriers to opera which keep out so many. And of course, all of this comes down once again to class, the system of dividers that place our population - and its language - into castes. Surely American language is more egalitarian; it's either simple (Trump tweets) or complex (US academic language), and instead of class it has colour acting as a barrier. One of the first language tricks I learned was Litotes, understatement by the use of negatives, an extremely English form of eloquence. Mr Thomas Jones, the popular Welsh singer, sang 'It's Not Unusual' - that's Litotes. And by writing
Mr Thomas Jones, the popular Welsh singer I am signifying something else by using the phrasing of the British music hall to suggest a faux-unfamiliarity with a famous figure that places me hierarchically above him. It gets much more complicated from here, believe me! 




Peter Dixon (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 11:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

At a party a friend and I were trapped in conversation by a local business owner, an incredible bore; after we'd escaped my friend commented "I bet he makes models out of matchsticks."
Humphrey Lyttelton on 'I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue' was a master of Litotes - or would he be a Litite?

Chris Webb (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 14:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The drawing of Geoffrey Chaucer makes me think of Frankie Howerd - "I titter not".

"You'll note that even in <i>It's inconceivable that this sentence would ever have appeared</i> there's a contraction and a complex past conditional at work." Yeah, I noticed that. :)

"'To keep the lid of his sauce bottle clean' is an example that does not derive from a direct sexual connotation" - hmmmm, not entirely sure about that...

I thought when you first mentioned Tom Jones you meant the foundling, not the Welshman! (Isn't he a Sir or something now rather than a Mr? The Welsh one, not the foundling one.)

I am very interested in things for which words exist in some languages but not others as it means so much more than the fact that in a certain language you can use one word instead of several. It implies that in the culture that has such a word the concept or idea the word encapsulates has an importance or even an existence which it does not have in other cultures. The most obvious example is the Danish hygge but there must be thousands of examples. I think we should "pinch" as many as we can (as The Times would say).

Chris Webb (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 14:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

PS - there should be a word for a word that exists in a certain language but has no equivalent in any other language. Maybe there is in some language.

Chris Webb (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 15:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And another thing - the picture of Florence Nightingale bears an uncanny likeness to Jane Austin. Oh for the English of the 19th century.

Jan (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 16:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Here Mr F where's this witch lady?
Don't tell me I've guessed she was really powerful + disappeared "Just like that!"

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 17:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In Suffolk, where I live, it is still possible to hear normal people using the odd word used here instead of 'Ran'. They used the word 'Runned', as in: "He runned away." And before anyone chimes in with 'Silly Suffolk', it was originally the Old German, 'Selig', meaning 'Blessed'. The Viz 'Profanisaurus' is a brilliant, though by nature, disgusting reference work, started as a joke six page leaflet, and now a 600+ page behemoth. I have read that, due to the various regions that have sent profanities to Viz, it is seen as an important work. Not sure of that, myself, but it is hilariously funny in places. Rabelais would have loved it.

snowy (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 18:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

[This is rather long, I suggest that you have tea and biscuits to hand before starting it.]

"Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye your dress you'll tear.
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,

Make my coat look new, dear, sew it?
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain,

(Mind the latter, how it's written!)
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say–said, pay–paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you

With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak,
Previous, precious; fuchsia, via;

Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven; how and low;
Script, receipt; shoe, poem, toe,
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:

Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid; measles, topsails, aisles;
Exiles, similes, reviles;
Wholly, holly; signal, signing;

Thames; examining, combining;
Scholar, vicar and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
From "desire": desirable–admirable from "admire";

Lumber, plumber; bier but brier;
Chatham, brougham; renown but known,
Knowledge; done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone; Balmoral;

Kitchen, lichen; laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German; wind and mind;
Scene, Melpomene, mankind;
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,

Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,

Which is said to rime with "darky".
Viscous, viscount; load and broad;
Toward, to forward, to reward,
And your pronunciation's O.K.

When you say correctly croquet;
Rounded, wounded; grieve and sieve;
Friend and fiend; alive and live;
Liberty, library; heave and heaven;

Rachel, ache, moustache; eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed;
People, leopard; towed, but vowed
Mark the difference, moreover,

Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches; wise, precise;
Chalice but police and lice.
Camel; constable, unstable;

Principle, disciple; label;
Petal, penal and canal;
Wait, surmise, plait, promise; pal.
Suit, suite, run, circuit, conduit

Rime with "shirk it" and "beyond it",
But it is not hard to tell,
Why it's pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular; gaol; iron;

Timber, climber; bullion, lion,
Worm and storm; chaise, chaos, chair;
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Ivy, privy; famous, clamour

And enamour rime with "hammer."
Pussy, hussy and possess.
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf; countenance; lieutenants

Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
River, rival; tomb, bomb, comb;
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rime with anger,

Neither does devour with clangour.
Soul, but foul and gaunt, but aunt;
Font, front, wont; want, grand, and, grant,
Shoes, goes, does.[1]) Now first say: finger,

And then: singer, ginger, linger.
Real, zeal; mauve, gauze and gauge;
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
Query does not rime with very,

Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
Though the difference seems little,

We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, but unite.
Reefer does not rime with "deafer,"

Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull; Geoffrey, George; ate, late;
Hint, pint; senate, but sedate;
Scenic, Arabic, pacific;

Science, conscience, scientific;
Tour, but our, and succour, four;
Gas, alas and Arkansas!
Sea, idea, guinea, area,

Psalm; Maria, but malaria;
Youth, south, southern; cleanse and clean;
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,

Dandelion with battalion,
Sally with ally; yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!
Say aver, but ever, fever,

Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess–it is not safe;
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf!
Heron; granary, canary;

Crevice, and device, and eyrie;
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic; ass, glass, bass;
Large, but target, gin, give, verging;

Ought, out, joust and scour, but scourging;
Ear, but earn; and wear and tear
Do not rime with "here", but "ere".
Seven is right, but so is even;

Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen;
Monkey, donkey; clerk and jerk;
Asp, grasp, wasp; and cork and work.
Pronunciation–think of psyche!–

Is a paling, stout and spikey;
Won't it make you lose your wits,
Writing "groats" and saying groats?
It's a dark abyss or tunnel,

Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict!
Don't you think so, reader, rather,

Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally: which rimes with "enough,"
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?
Hiccough has the sound of "cup"......

My advice is–give it up!"

"The Chaos" written by Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946)

Ian Mason (not verified) Thu, 02/11/2017 - 20:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

&gt; He suggests words we could bring back.

Ah, another rare excuse to bring out my personal favourite word and dust it off: autodefenestrate. As in: "When details of the Cayman Islands account were broadcast on the Six O'Clock News, the Primeminister autodefenestrated and was last seen making light on her heels across Horseguards Parade."

@Ian Luck &gt; ... originally the Old German, 'Selig', meaning 'Blessed'.

Blessed, as in 'touched by god' as in 'touched'?

Oh, I *do* love word games days.

I had the original six page Viz Profanisaurus. Before its inception I had no idea quite how many British phrases there were for 'in imminent need of a water closet'.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 03/11/2017 - 00:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ian Mason - it could mean 'Touched' (god knows how many similarly 'Blessed' people one encounters in town each day), but I have a feeling that it was simply due to the number of churches in the county. I read somewhere once that Suffolk was 'Rotten with them'. It was the wool trade. Made a shitload of cash from wool? Why not build a huge church, with all the bells and whistles (and to give Reformation iconoclasts something to have fun smashing up in three hundred years time), to show all and sundry how much cash you've made, whilst sitting on your fat arse watching your underlings doing the hard work. There's lovely.

Vivienne (not verified) Fri, 03/11/2017 - 00:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well, I think I shall introduce my family and friends to Chaos over Christmas, thanks Snowy.

There's another, much shorter poem with all the words mispelled, called Spell Chequer I think. Eye no for I know and so on, but don't have it to hand.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 13/11/2017 - 02:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think I only stumbled three times reading Chaos. There were a couple of items that raised my eyebrows, though: in N.America we say "grits" but we also spell it that way, do you really say "Kwyah" for choir? never have known how to pronounce "brougham" but guess it is one syllable-ish, and "parquet" isn't par-kay' ? I suppose it was "clark" and "leftenant" and "Rafe" for that poor boy. I have heard the colour pronounced "mawve" although it seems to clang. I wish I could remember the symbols we learned in that linguistics "course from Hell". How much is accent, I wonder, and where the people in a North American area had their English language origins.
In an on line game today we were asked to find "4 blice" which turned out to be 4 blouses. Someone suggested the game was compiled by French Canadians, but that's not a typical French error.