An Irishman's Defense Of English

We take for granted the amazing process of language-learning. Pronouns are the last parts of speech a child masters, since their meaning continually shifts. Does "I" refer to me or to you? Why does "you" sometimes mean you and sometimes me? To avoid confusion, parents of young children find themselves using the third person, as in, "It's time for David to go to bed, isn't it, David?"

The problem is severe enough for young English-speakers, but must be daunting indeed for German children. In addressing another person, they continually must choose between the formal pronoun (Sie) and the informal (du). (In fact, that's only the beginning of their grammatical difficulties.) Few things are more embarrassing for the foreign speaker of German (or French) than having to choose between the intimate and the formal modes of address, since the distinction is based on such subtleties as age, status, and lifestyle, of which a foreigner may have only the haziest idea.

Every time you open your mouth, you define relationships that the Anglophone instinctively feels are far better left undefined. Germans, for example, make a rigorous distinction between "friends" and "acquaintances," whereas the English take a much fuzzier view.

There is, of course, a certain chauvinism in English-speakers' preference for the way they say things. A German, a Frenchman, and an Englishman were discussing eyeglasses. "We call them 'Brille,' " said the German. "We call them 'lunettes,' " said the Frenchman. "And we call them 'spectacles,' " said the Englishman, "because that's what they are."

The great thing about English is that it's relatively easy to learn. (Ask anyone who has learned it as a second language.) This is why it threatens to take over the world. It has largely supplanted my own national language, Irish, together with its Celtic cousins. The French Academy has tried for years, valiantly and without success, to ban words like "le weekend." From the opposite perspective, some German corporations have made English mandatory in the workplace: It saves time.

But there is nothing essentially imperialist about English. It is an easygoing language. You can shift words around within sentences in ways that would involve serious transgressions in other languages. I remember trying to explain to a Swede, when she asked about the subtleties of "will" versus "shall," that, at the end of the day, it didn't really matter. I think she's still wondering how that could be so. (The laid-back nature of English may even have something to do with the social freedom that is one of the Empire's more benign bequests.) It is also a rich language, since its hybrid (Anglo-Saxon/Norman-French) origin means that there are usually two words for the same object (or thing).

MAKING a plural of a German noun is largely guesswork for a non-German speaker. In English, by and large, you just add "s." An inanimate object in English is not "he" or "she," as in other European languages, but, sensibly, an "it." (In German, bafflingly, the word for "girl," Mdchen, is neuter.)

It is true that English has difficult prepositions and spellings, but these are minor affairs. In English, you don't have to make the adjective agree with the noun. You don't have to worry about cases, either. Words are independent little beings, well able to take care of themselves. When you want to address someone, you say "you." And that's it.

In fact, it's probably too easy. One of the problems of English is its lack of a second-person plural. Irish, like French and German, has both a singular and a plural form of the second person ("you"). This is no doubt why Irish try to redress this difficulty when speaking English. An Irish person from the country, taking leave of a group of friends, will say "I'll see ye later," using an Elizabethan form that died out in England centuries ago. His Dublin cousin, on the other hand, might say, "I'll see yez later." (The nominative form is "youse," as in "youse fellas is a disgrace, so youse are.") Belfast relatives, on the other hand, employ the baroque form, "usance." (In the American South, of course, they get around the problem with "y'all," as in "Y'all have a good time now, y'hear?")

As an Irish person, then, I have mixed feelings about the prospect of English taking over the world. If it does, I hope it will be as a cultural Esperanto or lingua franca and that there will be room for other languages, including Irish. The lack of an Irish verb "to have," however, would no doubt pose problems for anyone hoping to use Irish for everyday transactions. (In Irish, the best you can do is to say "it is with me," which, come to think of it, is a very environmentally friendly approach.)

I like to think that with a knowledge of German, Irish, and Latin I could find my way around the Europe of Julius Caesar if I were suddenly sent back in time.

Well, maybe not. German has no doubt changed beyond recognition, nobody knows what the language of the European Celts sounded like, and my Latin is rusty. But I'm pretty sure English wouldn't do you much good if you tried to hitch a ride on a passing chariot.

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