November 15, 2015

Do Australians sound drunk to you?

Filed under: History, Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Lester Haines on how and when the distinctive “Strine” accent originated:

Australians’ distinctive accent – known affectionately as “Strine” – was formed in the country’s early history by drunken settlers’ “alcoholic slur”.

This shock claim, we hasten to add, comes from Down Under publication The Age, which explains:

    The Australian alphabet cocktail was spiked by alcohol. Our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns.

    For the past two centuries, from generation to generation, drunken Aussie-speak continues to be taught by sober parents to their children.

The paper reckons that not only do Aussies speak at “just two thirds capacity – with one third of our articulator muscles always sedentary as if lying on the couch”, but they also ditch entire letters and play slow and loose with vowels.

It elaborates:

    Missing consonants can include missing “t”s (Impordant), “l”s (Austraya) and “s”s (yesh), while many of our vowels are lazily transformed into other vowels, especially “a”s to “e”s (stending) and “i”s (New South Wyles) and “i”s to “oi”s (noight).

The upshot of this total disregard for clear English is that our Antipodean cousins are poor communicators and lack rhetorical skills, something which could cost the Australian economy “billions of dollars”, as The Age audaciously quantifies it.

October 12, 2015

Pronouncing Shakespeare

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I don’t know about you, but the first embedded video here at Open Culture sounds much more “Irish” than modern “English” to me:

As we highlighted a few days ago, recent findings by South African scientists suggest that William Shakespeare may have smoked pot, possibly composing some of his celebrated plays while under the influence. Their research is sure to spark controversy among Shakespeare scholars and historians alike, but it’s certainly a more interesting controversy than the tired debate about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays at all. Perhaps even more interesting than Shakespeare’s drug of choice for lovers of his language are debates about what Shakespeare’s plays might have sounded like to his original audiences. In other words, high or not, what might Shakespeare, his actors, and his audience have sounded like when they spoke the language we call English.

Of course they called the language English as well, but we might not recognize some words as such when hearing Shakespeare’s accent aloud. On the other hand, it might be surprising just how much the Bard’s original pronunciation sounds like so many other kinds of English we know today. In a post two years ago, we quoted Shakespearean actor, director, and writer Ben Crystal on Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, which, he says, “has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.” Hearing Shakespeare’s English spoken aloud, Crystal remarks, is hearing a sound that “reminds people of the accent of their home.” You can test this theory, and hear for yourself the sound of Shakespeare’s English with the video and audio highlighted here, showcasing Crystal’s performance of the plays in original pronunciation (OP).

September 19, 2015

First world problems – pronouns

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Katharine Timpf explains why we all face potentially insurmountable problems with our pronouns:

Scripps College, a private all-women’s college in Southern California, is giving students ten pronoun options to choose from in their student portal accounts — including “hu, hum, hus, himself,” “Just My Name Please,” and “None”

It’s not clear what the hell students who choose “None” are supposed to be called, especially since “Name Only” is another option. Are they (oops! I said “they!”) asking to not be spoken to at all? Because that sounds like a microaggression.

The other eight options are “E/Ey, Em, Eir/Eirs, Eirself/Emse,” “Per, Per, Per/Pers, Perself,” “Zi, Hir/Hirs Hirself,” “Ze, Zir, Zir/Zirs, Zirself,” “They, Them, Their/Theirs, Themse” (used as a singular pronoun) and — yes — the archaic “He, Him, His, Himself” or “Her, She, Hers, Herself.”


There is, however, an obvious problem with this system: What about the gender-fluid students who may change genders and pronouns throughout the year, or even perhaps throughout the day? I can’t imagine how traumatic (dangerous?) being pressured to choose just one might be.

September 13, 2015

QotD: The fine art of speaking foreign languages

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

We slept that night at Barr, a pleasant little town on the way to St. Ottilienberg, an interesting old convent among the mountains, where you are waited upon by real nuns, and your bill made out by a priest. At Barr, just before supper a tourist entered. He looked English, but spoke a language the like of which I have never heard before. Yet it was an elegant and fine-sounding language. The landlord stared at him blankly; the landlady shook her head. He sighed, and tried another, which somehow recalled to me forgotten memories, though, at the time, I could not fix it. But again nobody understood him.

“This is damnable,” he said aloud to himself.

“Ah, you are English!” exclaimed the landlord, brightening up.

“And Monsieur looks tired,” added the bright little landlady. “Monsieur will have supper.”

They both spoke English excellently, nearly as well as they spoke French and German; and they bustled about and made him comfortable. At supper he sat next to me, and I talked to him.

“Tell me,” I said — I was curious on the subject — “what language was it you spoke when you first came in?”

“German,” he explained.

“Oh,” I replied, “I beg your pardon.”

“You did not understand it?” he continued.

“It must have been my fault,” I answered; “my knowledge is extremely limited. One picks up a little here and there as one goes about, but of course that is a different thing.”

“But they did not understand it,” he replied, “the landlord and his wife; and it is their own language.”

“I do not think so,” I said. “The children hereabout speak German, it is true, and our landlord and landlady know German to a certain point. But throughout Alsace and Lorraine the old people still talk French.”

“And I spoke to them in French also,” he added, “and they understood that no better.”

“It is certainly very curious,” I agreed.

“It is more than curious,” he replied; “in my case it is incomprehensible. I possess a diploma for modern languages. I won my scholarship purely on the strength of my French and German. The correctness of my construction, the purity of my pronunciation, was considered at my college to be quite remarkable. Yet, when I come abroad hardly anybody understands a word I say. Can you explain it?”

“I think I can,” I replied. “Your pronunciation is too faultless. You remember what the Scotsman said when for the first time in his life he tasted real whisky: ‘It may be puir, but I canna drink it’; so it is with your German. It strikes one less as a language than as an exhibition. If I might offer advice, I should say: Mispronounce as much as possible, and throw in as many mistakes as you can think of.”

It is the same everywhere. Each country keeps a special pronunciation exclusively for the use of foreigners — a pronunciation they never dream of using themselves, that they cannot understand when it is used. I once heard an English lady explaining to a Frenchman how to pronounce the word Have.

“You will pronounce it,” said the lady reproachfully, “as if it were spelt H-a-v. It isn’t. There is an ‘e’ at the end.”

“But I thought,” said the pupil, “that you did not sound the ‘e’ at the end of h-a-v-e.”

“No more you do,” explained his teacher. “It is what we call a mute ‘e’; but it exercises a modifying influence on the preceding vowel.”

Before that, he used to say “have” quite intelligently. Afterwards, when he came to the word he would stop dead, collect his thoughts, and give expression to a sound that only the context could explain.

Putting aside the sufferings of the early martyrs, few men, I suppose, have gone through more than I myself went through in trying to I attain the correct pronunciation of the German word for church — “Kirche”. Long before I had done with it I had determined never to go to church in Germany, rather than be bothered with it.

“No, no,” my teacher would explain — he was a painstaking gentleman; “you say it as if it were spelt K-i-r-c-h-k-e. There is no k. It is—.” And he would illustrate to me again, for the twentieth time that morning, how it should be pronounced; the sad thing being that I could never for the life of me detect any difference between the way he said it and the way I said it. So he would try a new method.

“You say it from your throat,” he would explain. He was quite right; I did. “I want you to say it from down here,” and with a fat forefinger he would indicate the region from where I was to start. After painful efforts, resulting in sounds suggestive of anything rather than a place of worship, I would excuse myself.

“I really fear it is impossible,” I would say. “You see, for years I have always talked with my mouth, as it were; I never knew a man could talk with his stomach. I doubt if it is not too late now for me to learn.”

By spending hours in dark corners, and practising in silent streets, to the terror of chance passers-by, I came at last to pronounce this word correctly. My teacher was delighted with me, and until I came to Germany I was pleased with myself. In Germany I found that nobody understood what I meant by it. I never got near a church with it. I had to drop the correct pronunciation, and painstakingly go back to my first wrong pronunciation. Then they would brighten up, and tell me it was round the corner, or down the next street, as the case might be.

I also think pronunciation of a foreign tongue could be better taught than by demanding from the pupil those internal acrobatic feats that are generally impossible and always useless. This is the sort of instruction one receives:

“Press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx. Then with the convex part of the septum curved upwards so as almost—but not quite — to touch the uvula, try with the tip of your tongue to reach your thyroid. Take a deep breath, and compress your glottis. Now, without opening your lips, say ‘Garoo.’”

And when you have done it they are not satisfied.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

September 4, 2015

Slate: Testosterone changes the brain

Filed under: Europe, Health, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Perhaps it’s not just a social construct after all:

However much we’d like to think of gender as a social construct, science suggests that real differences do exist between female and male brains. The latest evidence: a first-of-its-kind European study that finds that the female brain can be drastically reshaped by treating it with testosterone over time.

Research has shown that women have the advantage when it comes to memory and language, while men tend to have stronger spatial skills (though this too has been disputed). But due to ethical restrictions, no study had been able to track the direct effect that testosterone exposure has on the brain — until now. Using neuroimaging, Dutch and Austrian researchers found that an increase in this potent hormone led to shrinkage in key areas of the female (transitioning to male) brain associated with language. They presented their findings at last week’s annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Amsterdam.

August 23, 2015

QotD: The real reason for the popularity of the English language in Europe

Filed under: Europe, History, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

But all this is apart from the moral I wished to draw from the incident. The true inwardness of the situation lay in the indignation of this Britisher at finding a German railway porter unable to comprehend English. The moment we spoke to him he expressed this indignation in no measured terms.

“Thank you very much indeed,” he said; “it’s simple enough. I want to go to Donaueschingen myself by train; from Donaueschingen I am going to walk to Geisengen; from Geisengen I am going to take the train to Engen, and from Engen I am going to bicycle to Constance. But I don’t want to take my bag with me; I want to find it at Constance when I get there. I have been trying to explain the thing to this fool for the last ten minutes; but I can’t get it into him.”

“It is very disgraceful,” I agreed. “Some of these German workmen know hardly any other language than their own.”

“I have gone over it with him,” continued the man, “on the time table, and explained it by pantomime. Even then I could not knock it into him.”

“I can hardly believe you,” I again remarked; “you would think the thing explained itself.”

Harris was angry with the man; he wished to reprove him for his folly in journeying through the outlying portions of a foreign clime, and seeking in such to accomplish complicated railway tricks without knowing a word of the language of the country. But I checked the impulsiveness of Harris, and pointed out to him the great and good work at which the man was unconsciously assisting.

Shakespeare and Milton may have done their little best to spread acquaintance with the English tongue among the less favoured inhabitants of Europe. Newton and Darwin may have rendered their language a necessity among educated and thoughtful foreigners. Dickens and Ouida (for your folk who imagine that the literary world is bounded by the prejudices of New Grub Street, would be surprised and grieved at the position occupied abroad by this at-home-sneered-at lady) may have helped still further to popularise it. But the man who has spread the knowledge of English from Cape St. Vincent to the Ural Mountains is the Englishman who, unable or unwilling to learn a single word of any language but his own, travels purse in hand into every corner of the Continent. One may be shocked at his ignorance, annoyed at his stupidity, angry at his presumption. But the practical fact remains; he it is that is anglicising Europe. For him the Swiss peasant tramps through the snow on winter evenings to attend the English class open in every village. For him the coachman and the guard, the chambermaid and the laundress, pore over their English grammars and colloquial phrase books. For him the foreign shopkeeper and merchant send their sons and daughters in their thousands to study in every English town. For him it is that every foreign hotel- and restaurant-keeper adds to his advertisement: “Only those with fair knowledge of English need apply.”

Did the English-speaking races make it their rule to speak anything else than English, the marvellous progress of the English tongue throughout the world would stop. The English-speaking man stands amid the strangers and jingles his gold.

“Here,” cries, “is payment for all such as can speak English.”

He it is who is the great educator. Theoretically we may scold him; practically we should take our hats off to him. He is the missionary of the English tongue.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

July 20, 2015

British humour “derives from the sloppiness of our language”

Filed under: Britain, Humour — Tags: — Nicholas @ 04:00

In sp!ked, Patrick West discusses the wellspring of British humour:

The English have a reputation for being a funny people. This, I think, derives from the sloppiness of our language, the messiness of which leads to misunderstandings. Indeed, the word ‘funny’ itself has two meanings.

Consider the old joke. ‘My dog has no nose’, says one. ‘How does he smell?’, asks another. ‘Terrible!’ This works because the English verb ‘to smell’ means both to sniff and to emit an odour. This joke wouldn’t work in Italian, where there’s no room for confusion. ‘Il cane sente l’odore del cibo’ means ‘the dog smells the food’; ‘Il cane puzza terribile’ means ‘the dog smells terrible’.

Romance languages also use reflexive verbs much more than we do, which also removes ambiguity. In Catalan, ‘ofegar’ means to suffocate someone or something else, and ‘ofegar-se’ means for oneself to suffocate. In English, ‘to suffocate’ can mean to asphyxiate or to strangle, two very different things.

Italian has ‘sentire’ meaning ‘to feel (something)’ and ‘sentirsi’ meaning ‘to feel’ – the latter pertaining to your internal self. To feel cold is ‘sentire freddo’, while to feel like doing something is ‘sentirsi di fare’. English doesn’t have that distinction.


English is ripe for misunderstanding. Children are amused by the construction ‘I feel like an apple’, as they are yet to comprehend that ‘like’ is the equivalent of the preposition ‘similar to’, as well as a verb. That ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ sound the same gives us verbal jokes like the one I heard on BBC Radio 4 this week:

    ‘Two nuns are driving along when the devil suddenly appears on their car bonnet, surrounded by fire and brimstone. One nun says to the other: “Quick, show him your cross.” The other leans out the window and shouts, “Get off my fucking bonnet!”.’

Then there’s the dual role of the apostrophe. In speech, ‘Gerrards Cross’ can either be a village in Buckinghamshire, a cross that belongs to Gerrard, or the state of mind of a Liverpool footballer who hasn’t been picked for the England team.

July 13, 2015

QotD: Paul Cambon, French ambassador in London

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The senior ambassadors developed an extraordinarily elevated sense of their own importance, especially if we measure it against the professional ethos of today’s ambassadors. Paul Cambon is a characteristic example: hr remarked in a letter of 1901 that the whole of French diplomatic history amounted to little more than a long list of attempts by agents abroad to achieve something in the face of resistance from Paris. When he disagreed with his official instructions from the capital, he not infrequently burned them. During a tense conversation with Justin de Selves, minister of foreign affairs from June 1911 until January 1912, Cambon somewhat tactlessly informed de Selves that he considered himself the minister’s equal. This claim looks less bizarre if we bear in mind that between 1898, when he became ambassador to London, and the summer of 1914, Cambon saw nine ministers enter and leave office — two of them did so twice. Cambon did not regard himself as a subordinate employee of the government, but as a servant of France whose expertise entitled him to a major role in the policy-making process.

Underpinning Cambon’s exalted sense of self was the belief — shared by many of the senior ambassadors — that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted that every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as “yes”. He firmly believed — like many members of the French elite — that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

July 12, 2015

QotD: Choosing the right language to use as a tourist

Filed under: Europe, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

From Baden, about which it need only be said that it is a pleasure resort singularly like other pleasure resorts of the same description, we started bicycling in earnest. We planned a ten days’ tour, which, while completing the Black Forest, should include a spin down the Donau-Thal, which for the twenty miles from Tuttlingen to Sigmaringen is, perhaps, the finest valley in Germany; the Danube stream here winding its narrow way past old-world unspoilt villages; past ancient monasteries, nestling in green pastures, where still the bare-footed and bare-headed friar, his rope girdle tight about his loins, shepherds, with crook in hand, his sheep upon the hill sides; through rocky woods; between sheer walls of cliff, whose every towering crag stands crowned with ruined fortress, church, or castle; together with a blick at the Vosges mountains, where half the population is bitterly pained if you speak to them in French, the other half being insulted when you address them in German, and the whole indignantly contemptuous at the first sound of English; a state of things that renders conversation with the stranger somewhat nervous work.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

June 27, 2015

“Individualism” as an epithet

Filed under: Europe, History, Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Frank Furedi explains the odd origins of the word “individualism”:

One reason why the idea of individualism generates so much confusion is because, throughout its history, it has been defined by parties that were hostile to it. Indeed, the very term itself was an invention of the opponents of liberalism. As Steven Lukes pointed out in in his useful study, Individualism (1973), the term first emerged in French – individualisme – as part of ‘the general European reaction to the French Revolution and to its alleged source, the thought of the Enlightenment’. For those opposed to the Enlightenment, individualism served as a swear word to be hurled at the enemy.

In Europe, nineteenth-century conservative and counter-revolutionary thought was dominated by hostility to reason and the rights of the individual. Individualism was blamed for the corrosion of traditional communities and the decline in community solidarity. And this conservative representation of individualism, as a narrow-minded, egotistical outlook that selfishly ignores the needs of others in society, continues to predominate. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, describes individualism as ‘the habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterised by the pursuit of one’s goals without reference to others’. In case the reader missed the implicit moral judgement here, the OED adds that individualism comes ‘sometimes with negative connotations of self-centredness or anti-social behaviour’.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was increasingly common to attribute some of the most destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution, particularly the break-up of communities and social disorganisation, to the rise of individualism. When Auguste Comte, the French philosopher and founder of the discipline of sociology, condemned individualism as ‘the disease of the Western world’, he gave voice to a sentiment that transcended the ideological divide between conservatives and socialists. Individualism had few friends on either the left or the right of the political spectrum. The representation of individualism as a selfish, anti-social and destructive creed provided an ideological narrative for demonising liberal currents of thought.

April 26, 2015

QotD: Teaching French in school

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Lest, in spite of all, the British schoolboy should obtain, even from the like of Ahn, some glimmering of French, the British educational method further handicaps him by bestowing upon him the assistance of, what is termed in the prospectus, “A native gentleman.” This native French gentleman, who, by-the-by, is generally a Belgian, is no doubt a most worthy person, and can, it is true, understand and speak his own language with tolerable fluency. There his qualifications cease. Invariably he is a man with a quite remarkable inability to teach anybody anything. Indeed, he would seem to be chosen not so much as an instructor as an amuser of youth. He is always a comic figure. No Frenchman of a dignified appearance would be engaged for any English school. If he possess by nature a few harmless peculiarities, calculated to cause merriment, so much the more is he esteemed by his employers. The class naturally regards him as an animated joke. The two to four hours a week that are deliberately wasted on this ancient farce, are looked forward to by the boys as a merry interlude in an otherwise monotonous existence. And then, when the proud parent takes his son and heir to Dieppe merely to discover that the lad does not know enough to call a cab, he abuses not the system, but its innocent victim.

I confine my remarks to French, because that is the only language we attempt to teach our youth. An English boy who could speak German would be looked down upon as unpatriotic. Why we waste time in teaching even French according to this method I have never been able to understand. A perfect unacquaintance with a language is respectable. But putting aside comic journalists and lady novelists, for whom it is a business necessity, this smattering of French which we are so proud to possess only serves to render us ridiculous.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

April 25, 2015

QotD: Political speech and political thinking

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.

April 21, 2015

QotD: The decadence of the English language

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946.

April 19, 2015

QotD: Learning languages

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… they have a way of teaching languages in Germany that is not our way, and the consequence is that when the German youth or maiden leaves the gymnasium or high school at fifteen, “it” (as in Germany one conveniently may say) can understand and speak the tongue it has been learning. In England we have a method that for obtaining the least possible result at the greatest possible expenditure of time and money is perhaps unequalled. An English boy who has been through a good middle-class school in England can talk to a Frenchman, slowly and with difficulty, about female gardeners and aunts; conversation which, to a man possessed perhaps of neither, is liable to pall. Possibly, if he be a bright exception, he may be able to tell the time, or make a few guarded observations concerning the weather. No doubt he could repeat a goodly number of irregular verbs by heart; only, as a matter of fact, few foreigners care to listen to their own irregular verbs, recited by young Englishmen. Likewise he might be able to remember a choice selection of grotesquely involved French idioms, such as no modern Frenchman has ever heard or understands when he does hear.

The explanation is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has learnt French from an Ahn’s First-Course. The history of this famous work is remarkable and instructive. The book was originally written for a joke, by a witty Frenchman who had resided for some years in England. He intended it as a satire upon the conversational powers of British society. From this point of view it was distinctly good. He submitted it to a London publishing firm. The manager was a shrewd man. He read the book through. Then he sent for the author.

“This book of yours,” said he to the author, “is very clever. I have laughed over it myself till the tears came.”

“I am delighted to hear you say so,” replied the pleased Frenchman. “I tried to be truthful without being unnecessarily offensive.”

“It is most amusing,” concurred the manager; “and yet published as a harmless joke, I feel it would fail.”

The author’s face fell.

“Its humour,” proceeded the manager, “would be denounced as forced and extravagant. It would amuse the thoughtful and intelligent, but from a business point of view that portion of the public are never worth considering. But I have an idea,” continued the manager. He glanced round the room to be sure they were alone, and leaning forward sunk his voice to a whisper. “My notion is to publish it as a serious work for the use of schools!”

The author stared, speechless.

“I know the English schoolman,” said the manager; “this book will appeal to him. It will exactly fit in with his method. Nothing sillier, nothing more useless for the purpose will he ever discover. He will smack his lips over the book, as a puppy licks up blacking.”

The author, sacrificing art to greed, consented. They altered the title and added a vocabulary, but left the book otherwise as it was.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

April 12, 2015

QotD: The German language

Filed under: Europe, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To Hanover one should go, they say, to learn the best German. The disadvantage is that outside Hanover, which is only a small province, nobody understands this best German. Thus you have to decide whether to speak good German and remain in Hanover, or bad German and travel about. Germany being separated so many centuries into a dozen principalities, is unfortunate in possessing a variety of dialects. Germans from Posen wishful to converse with men of Wurtemburg, have to talk as often as not in French or English; and young ladies who have received an expensive education in Westphalia surprise and disappoint their parents by being unable to understand a word said to them in Mechlenberg. An English-speaking foreigner, it is true, would find himself equally nonplussed among the Yorkshire wolds, or in the purlieus of Whitechapel; but the cases are not on all fours. Throughout Germany it is not only in the country districts and among the uneducated that dialects are maintained. Every province has practically its own language, of which it is proud and retentive. An educated Bavarian will admit to you that, academically speaking, the North German is more correct; but he will continue to speak South German and to teach it to his children.

In the course of the century, I am inclined to think that Germany will solve her difficulty in this respect by speaking English. Every boy and girl in Germany, above the peasant class, speaks English. Were English pronunciation less arbitrary, there is not the slightest doubt but that in the course of a very few years, comparatively speaking, it would become the language of the world. All foreigners agree that, grammatically, it is the easiest language of any to learn. A German, comparing it with his own language, where every word in every sentence is governed by at least four distinct and separate rules, tells you that English has no grammar. A good many English people would seem to have come to the same conclusion; but they are wrong. As a matter of fact, there is an English grammar, and one of these days our schools will recognise the fact, and it will be taught to our children, penetrating maybe even into literary and journalistic circles. But at present we appear to agree with the foreigner that it is a quantity neglectable. English pronunciation is the stumbling-block to our progress. English spelling would seem to have been designed chiefly as a disguise to pronunciation. It is a clever idea, calculated to check presumption on the part of the foreigner; but for that he would learn it in a year.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

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