Word of the Day

Sunday, August 21, 2011

English: The Inescapable Language

This article is so full of fallacies that I felt the urge to write about it:

To hear a Spanish word is to know how to spell it and to see one is to know how to pronounce it. – Not 100% true. There are several issues regarding y/ll, s/z/c, v/b, j/g. Many people also have a hard time enforcing accent mark rules properly.

There are no spelling bees in Spanish-speaking schools because there are no bad spellers among native speakers of the language. – Anybody who has ever peered into a Spanish-language chatroom will disprove this.

In French there are three conjugations of verbs (the so-called -er, -ir, and -re verbs, after their infinitive endings). – French is said to have four main conjugation paradigms. There are also oir type verbs.

Portuguese has four (conjugations), Latin five, German two. – Portuguese has three conjugations. - Maybe the author was thinking of the only verb ending in or – pôr, to place, to put, but it falls into the second conjugation, since its thematic vowel is e and is derived from Latin ponere, also with an e. Latin has four conjugations: are, long ere, short ere and ire. How did he arrive at two German conjugations? Unless one counts infinitives ending in consonant plus n, almost always rn or ln, as a separate conjugation.

All the irregular forms of all the irregular verbs in English can be listed on less than a page of a paperback dictionary. It takes 16 pages to do that with Spanish irregular verbs. – Who counted the pages? How many irregular verbs were included? All? I doubt anybody knows precisely how many English and Spanish irregular verbs there are.

When a word is borrowed into English, we tend to maintain the spelling of the foreign word even as we adapt the pronunciation to the English sound structure. We borrowed two Greek words to coin photography and we still spell it in the Greek fashion. – I don’t get this. Greek spells it the Greek way, using the Greek alphabet: φοτογραφία. We could say, though, that Greek φ gets transliterated with ph, also probably because Greek φ was thought be pronounced as a p followed by an h sound or as an aspirated p millennia ago. Moreover, if we would like to split hairs, the Spanish spelling is fotografía. Fotografia is Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, or Romanian (with embedded definite article), among other languages.

The circumflex was then added to the preceding vowel to let the reader know the S used to be there, as if the reader cared. This is known as French logic. – Why should we have words like debt, phlegm and myriad others? English logic?
The average speaker of English has a vocabulary with about half again as many words as the average speaker of, say, French or German.
– I don’t know what this is saying, but if it implies that an English speaker’s vocabulary is twice as large as a French or German speaker, I only say humbug to it.

That’s why the thesaurus and the dictionary of synonyms are standard reference works in English but seldom found in other languages. – The author should have dug deeper and he would have found them.

This multiplicity of words even extends to prefixes. To negate an adjective, for instance, one uses un- (as in uninterested), dis- (dishonest), in- (inattentive), or a- (amoral). – Other languages do the same. In Portuguese in, a, and des are also negative prefixes.

The advantage of the huge vocabulary of English, of course, is that it makes English a superb literary and scientific language, able to express fine and precise shades of meaning far more easily than other tongues. This is no small part of the reason English has become the near universal language of science. – Right. Camões, Machado de Assis, Eça de Queirós, Rilke, Schilling, Čapek, Goethe, Balzac, Molière, Zola, Danti, Cervantes, Manzoni, Tolstoi, Dostoievski, etc., all wrote in English. And no, English is the near universal language of science because English-speaking countries are the richest and the ones that foment science the most. If the richest country of the world were Afghanistan, everybody would be striving to write in Eastern Farsi or Southern Pashto, the two official languages of the country. The French extol the virtues of their own language as far as precision is concerned. Now who's right?

It also makes English more efficient. The English version of a lengthy text is always substantially shorter than versions in other languages. – The author has never seen Czech, Latin, Japanese and Chinese, just to name a few, renditions of an English text.

But while English has a very large everyday vocabulary, it also has the maddening habit of using the same word to mean many different things. Fly, for instance, means an annoying insect, a part of a pair of trousers, a part of a theater, a means of locomotion, the outer edge of a flag, a type of hit in baseball, and a type of hook for catching fish. A flyer can be either one who flies or a printed advertisement that is handed out. A bill is everything from the jaws of a bird to an invoice to a piece of legislation under consideration to an advertisement that is posted on a wall, not handed out. – This is called polysemy. All languages have it. I myself have written about the many meanings of Portuguese cravo.

English dominates the Internet. – If he calls dominate less than 50%, I will have to agree with him.

So we native speakers of English have a great advantage. Learning English at our mothers’ knee is almost like being born able to do algebra.
– Huh?

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