Kage Baker considered it a great good fortune in her life that she was born in an English-speaking country.
It wasn’t chauvinism, or even patriotism; there are better ways to practice one’s patriotism, and she figured that paying her taxes and voting covered that pretty well. Nor did she despise other languages. She read at least 4, driven by her fondness for opera and insistence on librettos in their original language.
No, Kage liked English because of the variety it offered. As languages go, it is a kaleidoscope; a gem cut into infinite facets; a multi-tool with a thousand surgically-precise blades and a thingie for straightening arrows. You can twist it and turn it, treat it like salt-water toffee and clay and coloured inks. It’s mutable. changeable, violently alive and evolving constantly.
And she loved adjectives, with which English is lousy. She especially liked the way they can be converted into nouns. Sometimes you don’t even have to change the spelling. That’s especially handy for people like you, she would say to me. Since you couldn’t spell your way through a pack of cigarette papers. Which is sad, but true …
All of these are attributes of why non-native English speakers often hate the tongue. It has no logical boundaries. It has few rules, and every one of them has exceptions. It has an enormous, redundant vocabulary. It advertises itself as a universal language, with no dialects, which is an unashamed lie: in Los Angeles, where we grew up, there are at least 5 distinct dialects among the native born, one of which is even gender-dependent – and that is almost unheard of among Western cultures.
There’s a T-shirt you can find at most science fiction conventions: English doesn’t borrow words from other languages. It follows other languages down dark alleys, mugs them, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar. Kage loved that shirt. I myself have gone through 6 of them over the years. I consider my wardrobe incomplete without one.
You can say almost anything in English. It might take you several words for some specific concepts that are only one word in their original languages – but you can combine enough of English to do the job. And if you wait a generation or two, the kids and grand kids will have converted that jury-rigged phrase into a single, efficient word. Then the folks back in the Old Country can have fits when the hybrid word comes slinking back over the border to pollute the Mother Tongue …
The hits just never stop, with English.
That’s why Kage considered herself lucky to be a native speaker. It was the best linguistic paintbox on the planet, and she always did love big paintboxes with lots of colours. Hues. Tints. Shades. Tones, pigments, stains, dyes. You know.
My mind started out along this interesting path when I woke up yestreday and discovered that the heat had broken. Which meant that the weather was fixed. It’s such an English language turn of phrase.
The weather is back to normal, the blissful autumnal climate soothing the fevered body of the Basin. It’s been cold at night! I’ve slept under the covers for the 1st time in 5 months, and even now it’s only 78 degrees here, with a breeze. We will have some more hot days here and there, but now they’ll be singleton rarities and not fortnights of triple-digit heat. Los Angeles is once more fit for human habitation; or, at least, for mine.
So … it’s a good time to go searching through my own word hoard, full of peculiar exotica. There are stories waiting patiently, and the first thing I need to find is the word for a weird kind of cloud I only saw once …
But I bet there’s a word in English for it.
That’s fun. I like the notion that you can twist English into whatever you want it to be. (Just had a discussion with friends about ‘rack’ versus ‘wrack’ when it comes to brains and nerves. It’s not the spelling that’s the issue, but the root word itself.)
However, I was speaking to a writer recently, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis in a bilingual home and community. He writes mostly in English, but says a few of his songs and poems are in Gaelic because ‘there are things you just can’t say in English.’ I asked him “what things?” and we both laughed. But he believes there are concepts he can’t express in English, for which he must use Gaelic instead.
I would sort of agree with your friend, Jan. I know some words in Gaelic that do not have a one-word match in English … but they can be translated into a phrase. Given an actively bi-lingual Gaelic/English community – such as are actually evolving in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and places like the Isle of Lewis, much more now than in other prior century – there WILL BE better words to translate them. Maybe new words in English, or hybrids. Not knowing precisely how it will work is part of the fun.
Yes, I bet there IS a word for that… and if not, we’ll just make up one. As a philologist, I am aware of the richness in others’ languages. But while we may joke about a million ways to describe snow in the Inuit language (in reality there is just one root word and several variations), I feel English has more than a sufficient diversity for me to express myself. 🙂 .
English has enough diversity for me, too – especially since it can let one make guesses at other languages, which thus learn brand new things. I’ve always loved the gentle myth about Inuit words for snow – there’s a similar situation in Gaelic for fish, I believe. One base word, and then modifiers for things like colour, location, species: and the base word is “salmon” So there’s red salmon-fish, freshwater salmon-fish, local salmon-fish … trout salmon-fish.
I think this also proves that the classic “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” was originally written in some variety in Gaelic.