Sunday, 18 May 2014

English as she is spoke

A young Greek friend of mine is learning English at school. She also goes to evening classes, and once a week she comes to me and we read an English book aloud together; she one page and I the next. (I nearly said ‘Me the next’ — more of that in a moment.) Just now we are reading the first book of the Harry Potter series, and we find that an hour is barely enough to do one chapter, so progress with the story is slow. But there are lots of new words for her: she was not familiar with the English vocabulary of wizardry and witchcraft, nor indeed with the casual demotic speech of both wizard and muggle folk. Just recently we came across the well-known English suffix ‘-ish’, as in ‘I’ll see you at five-ish’ or ‘This white silk scarf has gone a bit yellow-ish’ or ‘I’m feeling a trifle peckish’. (Though is that last a proper example? If one were feeling a touch more than peckish, would one be feeling ‘Peck’?) There is no Greek equivalent to this so it was difficult (ish) to explain, but once she had got the idea she listened out for it in the speech of the many English people around here, and gleefully reported instances.

Then there are the words for noises: ‘Bang!’ and ‘Wham!’ and ‘Zap!’ are of course something different in Greek. Or those for animal noises: in Greek dogs don’t go ‘Ruff, ruff!’ nor sheep ‘Baa!’.

More formally, English has lost many of its inflections, so that to many English  people who can speak their language (more or less) correctly, words like ‘Nominative’, ‘Accusative’, ‘Genitive’ mean little or nothing. But they are still there in Greek. For instance, Greeks are baffled by the English way of saying ‘It’s Me!’ when the person on whose door one is knocking says ‘Who is it?’ (Well, so am I a touch: of course  it’s ‘me’; who else could it be?) They point out that it should be, grammatically, ‘It is I’. Hard to know what to say. They are right of course. ‘But it’s just not what we say; it’s right but it sounds oddly pompous.’

In general, teaching English to a foreigner, however informally, has brought it home to me (Now there’s a funny expression) that it is only when one looks at one’s own language from outside as it were, through the eyes and ears of a foreigner, that one sees (and hears) what a strange language English is.  

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