English Language Soup

Studying Spanish and struggling to read newspapers, toothpaste packaging, movie subtitles, and, trickiest of all, struggling to coherently speak with locals, I’ve been thinking about language a lot. In Mexican Spanish the future tense as a verb conjugation is on its way out. My Spanish teacher has dutifully taught it to me, mourning the fact that fewer and fewer people use it in spoken discourse. A hundred years from now, she says, shaking her head it’ll be gone.

In English useful distinctions between certain words like "disinterested" and "uninterested" are all but gone except amongst a fanatical, pedantic few. The subjunctive, too, is on its last legs. My Spanish teacher says one of the hardest things about teaching English speakers is trying to explain the very concept of the subjunctive, let alone how it’s used (a lot) in Spanish. When’s the last time you heard someone say, "Would that she were still here?" My point exactly.

Two weeks ago I discovered that there’s no concept of the double negative in Spanish nor any notion of the split infinitive. Hooray for Spanish! Split infinitives and double negatives are about as meaningful and useful as the weird USian rule about not wearing white shoes after Labour Day. I mean, huh?

I have no idea how the double negative rule originated (and now that I’m not a professional scholar, buggered if I’ll do the research to find out) but I do know that the idea of the split infinitive is a hold over from Latin grammar. From those halcyon days when grammars of English were first being written and it didn’t occur to anyone that you might write one by making actual observations about how English functioned. What a ludicrous idea that would be. No, no, best we base our grammar wholesale on the Latin one. Those Romans know from grammars. And let’s stuff our brand new grammar full of dumb rules that get in the way of making meaning.

Splitting your infinitives is impossible in Latin—they’re one word. For some insane reason those early grammarians decided to decree the non splitting of the entirely splittable English infinitive. It made no sense then; it makes no sense now. To boldly go where no one has gone before. Got quite a ring to it, that does. To go boldly where no one has gone before. Boldly to go . . . I don’t think so. Every time I hear someone tut-tutting over the Star Trek motto, muttering about infinitives being split, I want to sit them down and ask them to explain to me exactly what about sticking an adverb in between the preoposition "to" and the verb interferes with making meaning? I bet you gazillions of dollars they would have no response other than: "it just sounds better." Ignore them, people, they’re insane.

Far more annoying though is the idea of the double negative. The English language, people, is not maths. If someone says, "I ain’t got no love for him." It’s pretty clear that person is not about to propose. The classic example, of course, is more along the lines of "No, I do not want to not have him in my life." The problem there is not double negatives, it’s incoherence.

I remember a bewildering array of nonsense exhortations to not commit grammatical felonies when I was enduring my primary, secondary and, sadly, tertiary education. (For that matter, I’m still coming across some of these nutteries in red line comments from editors). Never end a sentence in a preposition or conjunction. (An impossibility if you’re an Australian, but). Avoid repetition at all costs. (A particularly egregious one which leads to all sorts of horrifying burly detectivisms [scroll down]). Never begin a sentence with "but" or "and". (But why not? And how am I supposed to avoid it?). A sentence must have a verb in it. (Why? Because.) Never use "I" in an essay; an essay written in first person cannot be objective. (Post-structuralism seems to have killed that one dead. Yay, post-structuralism.)

One of the hardest things about learning another language is trying to figure out aphorisms and other idiomatic expressons. I know, I know, I shouldn’t try. Most of the time you can’t understand them, you can only memorise them. There are still expressions in English I don’t understand. I only learnt what "A stitch in time saves nine" means when Scott explained it to me a few days go. Never learned to sew, me, so sewing metaphors aren’t exactly second nature. And what on Earth does "Don’t come the raw prawn with me" really mean, and more to the point, why?

As they say in Spanish, "nunca va a hacer casa de azulejos" (you’re never going to build a house of tiles). Or, more to the point, "nunca falta un roto para un descosido" (never miss a broken thing for an unstitched one).

Feliz año nuevo (happy new year).

San Miguel de Allende, 6 January 2004