- Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 August 2010 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 18 August 2010 05:00
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Over the years, in high school, and later in College, I tried to learn another language. My teachers did their best, but the outcome was always the same. And so was their conclusion. I had no aptitude for languages. The best advice was to stick with the language I had, and that was English. However, while most of us are used to English, it’s not as easy as all that, and when I think of all the new immigrants in our area having to master our native tongue, my heart goes out to them.
Just consider the number of words. Many argue that English has more words than any other language in the world. The Oxford Dictionary puts the count at 500,000, but others say it’s more like 1 million. Also, according to one source, and this includes words that probably aren’t going to last long, such as “humongous,” and “ginormous” the English language adds a word every 98 minutes. I guess I will have to “google” that (and yes, “google” is one of those new words too), to see if it’s true.
There are older words, popular a century or more ago, that for the American ear, don’t always have much meaning. British English offers some of the best examples. I remember being at a student meeting in Scotland and the chairman saying that we would reconvene in a fortnight. I didn’t have a clue what he meant. I quietly asked a British friend of mine, a very nice young woman, who looked at me like I was a very slow student, said, in a schoolmarm tone, “…it means two weeks, David.” I had read Shakespeare, he used the word fortnight quite a bit, but I guess I had never taken much interest in finding out what it meant.
Of course, even today, many British publications, and this includes one of my favorites, The Economist, are still fond of words that have long gone out of popular usage in America. This includes “lest, “whilst,” “betwixt,” as well as saying, if there is a problem, that something is “amiss.” Winston Churchill said we are two peoples separated by a common language and I certainly understand what the great man meant.
English verbs can be a little odd too. There is no logical reason to assume, if you’re a newcomer to America, or any English speaking country for that matter, that the past tense of “to sink” is “sank” or that the past tense of “to think” is “thought.” Some languages, and this is true for most English verbs, change tenses according to set rules. But English, since it is such an amalgam, has exception after exception and this is just a function of its constantly changing nature. But I am sure it drives budding English speakers absolutely batty.
After Spanish and Chinese, English is the third most spoken language in the world and its use is growing. It is the language of the United Nations, much of the world’s trade, and it is the standard for all worldwide air traffic control communications.
One of the reasons English has been so successful as a language has to do with its flexibility. It morphs, adds words, changes usage, and grows with surprising ease. Its roots are with the Anglo Saxons when they migrated to England in the first millennium, but it didn’t stop there. The Danes and the Norse made a strong contribution and so did the Norman French who showed up with William the Conqueror in 1066.
Also, unlike, say, modern French, where the French “Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication” actually approves new French words, English doesn’t have any official word police. English speakers adopt, drop, and change the use of the language all the time. We speak differently than our grandparents and would have a tough time understanding English speakers of the Middle Ages. And of course, there are times, when English speakers from country to country, or even regions within a country, have trouble understanding each other.
With that in mind, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about having just one language. It’s a pretty resilient tongue. But when I see new immigrants, wherever they’re from Korea, Pakistan, Central America or Africa, trying to learn English, I am more inclined than I used to be, to give them a little extra understanding as they’re trying to speak this quirky language of ours. Given all of its twists and turns, there are times when I marvel at the fact I can speak it all.
You may reach David Kerr at