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13 February 2011


Bob Hobert

When I visit my roots in the upper midwest my senses recoil at the common usage of "I seen" and "He done" and "They was", among other English language atrocities commonly spoken there. I grew up in the back woods riding on a hay wagon and attended one-room country schools through 6th grade. I did not speak like that then, although many did. Why? English certainly was taught. I cannot claim to have yet totally mastered the language, yet I cannot fathom that contemporary schools graduate complete gibberish speakers.

RL Crabb

I'll be the first to admit my mangling of the English language. I know I do it on my blog comments quite a bit, mostly because I am tired and the old brain isn't hitting on all cylinders. I'll try to do better in the future.

I am reminded of an incident that happened many years ago at the San Diego Comic Con. I was having lunch with Sergio Aragones, who is best known for his "marginal" drawings in MAD magazine, and Dez Skinn, an English publisher.

Sergio was commenting on the way we construct sentences. "In Spanish, we put the question mark at the beginning of the sentence, so you know it's a question."

Dez countered, "Well, that's because we English never know when we are going to ask the question, do we?"

Mike Sherman

Hey Georgie - I donut see da problem man, like u gotta be able to relate to the whats-happenin'-now scean and like, get which it so u not be left oot in da dark. Skool in Los Angels was a total drag man, they dont know nothin anyway so why we waste r time.....dude....

George, you are absolutely correct. Remember Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis show? I believe that was the beginning of alternative speech. The push for ebonics and the casual 'valleyspeak' you reference are all tied in to a gradual mindset that has helped destroy the fine art of writing, and speaking.

George Rebane

An excellent example Bob (I'm still laughing). But the end of the sentence inflection erection that is so common in America today asks the question only in its implicit tonality, not explicitly like the surprise queries addended by the British.

George Rebane

Indeed MikeS, and I wouldn't mind such contractions, abbreviations, omissions, and other shortenings if the resulting language retained its information carrying capacity. But it doesn't in the 'hands' of the manglers. You still need to say more words (i.e. transmit more bits) in their sorry attempts to speak, than if you spoke correctly (and thereby efficiently).

In sum, English is not the most efficient of languages, but it is evolving in that direction, primarily as it adopts the jargon of specialized areas like technology, and this jargon leaks out - e.g. 'feedback', 'in the loop', 'on line' or soon 'online'.

Michael R. kesti

One need not frequent distant locales in order to be subjected to examples of fractured English. My friends, co-workers, and acquaintances daily expose me to those cited by Bob Hobert and more. Many, for example, seem unaware that proper adverbs have -ly suffixes. Observe, too, Russ Steele's routine failure to properly pluralize many nouns. I recently pointed out the ignorance demonstrated by a regular poster on Jeff Peline's blog for twice in one sentence using "would of" rather than "would've." Imagine my surprise when, rather than being thanked for the effort, I was instructed to "get a life."

It is almost certain that one will commit grammar or syntax errors while pointing out others' lack of English skills. You almost got away clean, George, but the first comma in the second sentence of your fourth paragraph is misplaced.

George Rebane

Absolutely correct MichaelK - it should read "... or, perhaps, can be ...". My proofreading faded in the stretch ;-) Thank you.

Indigo Red

It was a simple request by my cousin, a UC Davis student, of her Facebook friends: "Please write the first thing that pops into your mind and fully describe - What is the First you think of when you hear the word "hunter"?"

From another student, she got this reply: "I think of a male holding a rifle with a beard."

Why the rifle had a beard, I'll never know. When I pointed out the humorous phrasing, the student friend didn't see anything wrong at all.

RL Crabb

One of the most aggravating errors I see on the blogs is the confusion between the words "lose" and "loose".

I'm not going to mention any names. You know who you are.

George Rebane

Indigo Red - Yours is an excellent example of Sapir-Whorf in action. With simplified language, the brainbone simply does not construct the rich tableau of alternatives available to someone with a more supportive language.

Bob - ... 'lose' and 'loose' are particularly hard for people because they also happen to be counter-phonetic. We want to use 'loose' for lose because its long vowel sound seems to demand, well, more vowels. And vice versa, we pronounce loose with a short vowel that tells us fewer of them puppies are needed in the word.

I am happy to have been taught my lexicographics in the Estonian tongue which is almost totally phonetic. Every kid who learns the alphabet also automatically learns how to read, because he simply voices the sounds of the letters in the word, and VOILA!, the word pronounces itself.

Larry Wirth

Don't know much about non-Indo European languages, but among the common Western languages, English seems to me the most efficient. For one thing, it has easily the largest vocabulary and that means fewer modifiers. More to the point, however, next time you open a product with instructions in multiple languages, take note that the English instructions are always the shortest compared to French, Spanish, Italian, Portugese and yes, even German.

George Rebane

Would agree with you Larry for Indo-European languages. And because of primarily the dynamism of American society and commerce, the English lexicon has exploded over the last two hundred years. We Americans configure a new symbol set (i.e. word) at the drop of a hat in order to use fewer words to communicate something new. We have no truck with 'the blue of the grass', we simply call it 'green'.

However, I would enter any of the Finno-Ugric lanuages (Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian) into the competition for efficient linguistic communication. These languages have 15 cases which support extreme parsimony in minimizing the encoding bits required to express any given notion. And their rapid adoption and facile adaptation of English terms is more to their benefit.

RL Crabb

Being a cartoonist, I'm always looking for ways to configure new symbol sets. My editor is the size of the word balloon in a panel.

Larry Wirth

Thanks, George. But it was precisly my point that English is most versitile because of its enormous vocabulary, currently being developed in the tech world, and adopted (with or without local modification)worldwide, that's what makes it so useful.

Declination is the bane of any English-speaking student of a foreign language, simply because English doesn't do it. Likewise, gender. Look at it this way: to be intellectually conversant, you have to know the "words;" having to reduce every noun to its proper form in order to use it seems an unecessary piece of baggage. Similarly gender, and informal and formal pronouns. My object is to "git 'er done" in as few words as necessary.

It's an open secret that while mastery of English as a written language is difficult, its spoken forms are easily learned (talk to your gardener)and native speakers are generally pretty good at knowing what the novice foreign-born speaker is trying to communicate, because uncluttered by mandatory word endings that are typical of earlier languages. This is about moving away from the world of shrugs and grunts, superceded by inflections, into the world of the singularity. Computers won't like the rules about "i" and "e."

If this world is ever to have a common language, it will almost certainly be English. See you at 6294.

George Rebane

Agreed Larry. Learning Estonian is only recommended for little children; its efficiency comes at a high price for adults. Nevertheless, I was amazed that a number of ethnic Russian merchants in Tallinn had learned the language as adults in order to qualify for Estonian citizenship and do business.

Now that Watson can compete successfully on Jeopardy (tonight on TV), English it will be.

Michael Anderson

Or Spanglish, just to be a little bit saucy (-;

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