Monday, August 4, 2008

Assistance! Assistance! My Manse Has Ignited!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Just picture this: a nice, mild, forest-covered island 1,000 years ago. The people were your quaint, average peasants doing what all average peasants did 1,000 years ago: eking out a living from the land, poaching deer from their feudal lord’s woodlands, picking lice off one another. And these people happened to speak something we now call Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. One Germanic language, one vocabulary, and for those relatively few who could read and write, one easy-to-learn phonetic spelling system. Ah, those were the days! A house was a house was a house. It wasn’t a hut and it wasn’t a manse. It was a house, or more accurately, a hus.

But then 1066 came along, and all that bucolic Anglo-Saxon simplicity went the way of the Neanderthals. William and his Norman French just couldn’t resist the real estate on the other side of the English Channel and decided the Saxons needed better governing, better education, and better language. So they controlled everything, and when they weren’t speaking their form of French, they were speaking Medieval Latin while the peasants were still muttering away in Anglo-Saxon. Well, that didn’t last for too long. The languages started getting mixed together in some very odd ways. You could eat some cow, or you could eat some beef. You could get some help, or you could receive some assistance. You could work the land, or you could work the soil. You could live in a town, or you could live in a village. And the funny thing is, there were these extra words now that basically had the same meaning. Things were starting to get complicated.

Here’s a short conversation* as it might be spoken by descendants of those Norman French:

(Knock! Knock! Knock!)
A: Enter!
B: Salutations, Griselda! It’s five o’clock, time to invest yourself in your chapeau and coat and remove yourself from the office. A group of us are contemplating descending to “The Blue Dragon,” removing some victuals from the premises, and returning to Maria’s to have dinner.
What do you say? Want to join us?
A: I really don’t have the desire to because I’m trying to recuperate from this terrible catarrh I’ve had for days. Oh, and could you please extinguish that cigarette? It’ll cause another one of my famous coughing attacks to happen.

Did that seem a little strange? You can bet the ranch that native English speakers think so! Okay then, how might the very same conversation sound if spoken by descendants of those poor Anglo-Saxons?

(Knock! Knock! Knock!)
A: Come in!
B: Hi, Griselda! It’s five o’clock, time to put on your hat and coat and take off. A group of us are thinking about going down to “The Blue Dragon,” picking up some food to take out, and going
back to Maria’s to have a meal together. What do you say? Want to go with us?
A: I really don’t feel like it because I’m trying to get over this awful cold I’ve had for days. Oh, and could you please put out that cigarette? It’ll bring on another one of my famous coughing spells.

Quite a difference, wouldn’t you say? And yet it’s exactly the same conversation. A native English speaker will probably start grinning if he listens to the first conversation. Why? Because many of the words used in that conversation are not considered “appropriate” for an everyday, casual chat. The words and some of the phrasing seem too “high class,” too “uppity.” The vocabulary used in that conversation draws unnecessary attention to itself, whereas the vocabulary in the second conversation doesn’t. Is this something unique to English? It may very well be. It’s said that English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. Well, if these two versions of the same dialogue don’t help to prove that assertion, nothing will!

One of the most daunting challenges that ESOL students have is trying to figure out and then remember which words are the typical ones used in everyday conversation and which ones are used in very formal or highly academic situations. Of course, an ESOL student coming from a Romance language background has the hardest time doing this. Many of the words that are obviously the same in both languages are considered “uppity” by English speakers when used in everyday conversation, but just considered the regular, “normal” words by students who speak a Romance language. I don’t know how many times I, for one, have had to correct students who come from Romance languages when they’d say something like, “I have to go to the airport to receive my brother” (as if he’s coming in a box or something). That sounds so odd! I’d jump right in and say, “You have to go to the airport to meet or greet or pick up your brother.” Well, what about this sentence: “The Queen received the new American ambassador at St. James’s Palace yesterday.” Aha! See what I mean? Receive just doesn’t work in the student’s sentence, but it certainly does okay in the sentence about the Queen. And don’t we traditionally have receiving lines at events like weddings? Hmm??

Because the Norman French controlled the government, the Church, and the universities for quite some time, a great many of the words they introduced into English are associated with high society and higher learning even to this day, while the Anglo-Saxon words we still use, coming down to us from the peasants of a thousand years ago, are considered the casual, everyday language that we use most of the time. Quite a legacy! Who would think we could have such historical, linguistic baggage to carry around for so long? Well, we do. But we ESOL teachers love a good challenge, don’t we? Or don’t we? Perhaps this is food for thought when planning out vocabulary lessons. At least it’s something worth pondering.

*Richard Firsten with Patricia Killian. The ELT Grammar Book: A Teacher-Friendly Reference Guide. Alta Book Center Publishers. 2002


Comment from Sam Simian
August 6, 2008 at 3:10 am

The History of Change, Dude!

Dear Grammar Guy,

You described how both the so-called “upper class” (to a lesser extent) and the “lower class” (to a greater extent) have contributed to modern English usage. (I think that my scare quotes and my use of “so-called” show that I’m too politically correct to think that all people aren’t equal. ☺) While the Norman Conquest involved two different languages, and was a major event in the history of the English language, I think that I vaguely recall from some PBS program that “everyday English” usually moves from the lower classes up, instead of moving from the upper classes down. Does that jive with your understanding?

And on another point that borders on being a non sequitur, doesn’t that mean that the language mavens are almost always bound to lose? I seldom even pretend to be a defender of correct language usage (that is, outside of my ESL classroom), but I do get up on my high horse every once in a while. One example is the use of “ironic” to mean “coincidence.” However, I think I jus’ gotta chill cuz that ship’s sailed. Whaddya think?


Comment from Grammar Guy
August 6, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Hi, Sam.

Yes, the idea that everyday English usually moves from the lower classes up jives exactly with what I wrote.

As to your other point, I couldn’t agree with you more. Language “mavens,” as you call them, have to realize at some point that language keeps evolving. Sometimes things change slowly, sometimes quite quickly – but they do change. So I can see why you’ve developed that laissez-faire attitude, Sam.

Thanks for responding to this entry.

Leave a comment on this post