Thoughts on English

December 4, 2009 § Leave a comment


Why is English so hospitable to nonsense syllables and words?

Hickory Dickory Dock,
the mouse ran up the clock

or

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

I think English was first a dance-hall, drinking language of peasants. Or maybe it was the language that peasant and working parents spoke to their children in the crib. Think of all the nonsense words: dither dather, scribble scrabble, hither and thither; there is a bubbly, fizzy, unharnessed (un-nailed down) quality to English that welcomes new words and babble. Speaking of nonsense, closer to our own day, I recall, as kids, my brother and I running around the house singing with Roger Miller,

And you had a do-wacka-do,
Wacka do, wacka-do, wacka-do

What is black jazz scat-singing after all but elaborate nonsense lyrics? An early English poem by John Skelton (1460-1520), Phillip Sparrow, is full of delightful nonsense rhyme. By contrast when Dante’s (1265-1321) wanderer confronts demons howling bizarre syllables in the The Inferno it startles dramatically because the rest of Dante’s Italian is so structurally poised.

Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!»,
cominciò Pluto con la voce chioccia;
e quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe,

disse per confortarmi: «Non ti noccia
la tua paura; ché, poder ch’elli abbia,
non ci torrà lo scender questa roccia.
(Inferno, VII, vv. 1-6)

Does it make any sense to appeal to our highly developed infantile qualities? No, but there is something going on–a language does not easily shake off its beginnings. Perhaps this ‘baby talk’ understructure explains why it is so hard to do English well. Our complex verb forms are very complex even for native speakers:

“If that had happened, I would have had to…”

Contrast Spanish, a romance language, wherein workers, peasants and Indians can, usually, gracefully handle the horrendously complex subjunctive. Our grammar is so unsettled, our punctuation seems improvised. The only thing vaguely settled about English is the sentence order and that is a distinct disadvantage. Subjec–Verb–Object. It is too rigid. Unlike romance languages English must adhere to its sentence structure. We lose sight of the subject so easily in English. We do not have masculine and feminine designations for nouns or clause markers. Romance languages can devise elaborate sentences with numberless clauses because the clause denominator–which, that, whom, whose–is clearly marked as masculine or feminine–you can always trace back and identify the subject noun.

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