Sunday 14 February 2016

Hats off - and away

I have been in the habit of handing out Blobby tributes with the phrases: Hats off! <generic> Bonnets off! <facetious in the case of accolades for women [in science]> Chapeau bas! <when it seems appropriate to salute a French>.  English is easy for English speakers because it has neither accents nor gender to trip up the unwary.  It's the divil-itself for non-natives because of the idiosyncratic spelling and/or pronunciation. I don't think it has more than its fair share of irregular plurals or verb conjugations although these regularly trip up small children when their apprehension the rules of grammar collides with what they hear about them: "I wented to the sweet-shop".  In Latin it is customary to conjugate [ie rote-learn] verbs as a string like amo amare amavi amatum each word of which informs the user about the wide variety of endings that will be employed to express various states and tenses of loving.  If amo is I love, the rest of the present tense rattles off: amas = you love; amat = he she or it loves; amamus = we love; amatis = youall love; amant = they love. Amo is a regular verb:
  • amo 1st person singular present indicative: I love
  • amare present indicative: to love
  • amavi 1st person singular perfect [past] indicative: I loved
  • amatum past participle: having been loved
That's all regular and . . . regular. All the verbs in esperanto are regular which makes it too boring for most people to learn. Latin being a natural language there are wacko irregular verbs, like Fero (I carry or bear):
  • fero 1st person singular present indicative: I carry
  • ferre present indicative: to tote
  • tuli 1st person singular perfect [past] indicative: I schlepped
  • latum past participle: having been borne (irregular in English too!)
It's not really true to say that we have no accents in Inglés because we do have the dreaded apostrophe which is inconsistent in its usage when it tries to satisfy two conflicting demands: to indicate an absent letter: it's a contraction of it is; John's eye is a contraction of olde English Johnes eye using the genitive case as a synonym of the eye of John. That's another user-winning simplification of the English tongue: we've dumped almost all the case endings.  Apostrophes are also used to differentiate two letter identical strings that mean different things.  By convention it's (it is) gets the apostrophe and its (genitive case = of it) doesn't: as Steven Pinker and I have said before which won and which lost the apostrophe war has no logic or pattern: it's a convention.

The maddening spelling in English often retains etymological clues: know and gnat used to start off with a stop: k-now, g-nat which we've lazily left behind. Some of the wonk-spells are probably misconstrued faux-intellectual: the Latin for salmon is Salmo, the Latin for debt is debitum and so the l and the b were added in Shagsper's [dude couldn't even spell his own name] time to supplant OE dett and saumon or samon.  English is a living language and there is no Academy to hold us back from changing it to suit our needs - there are just a bunch of sad-sack apostrophe Nazis and we'll soon see them off.

L'Académie française, OTOH has been throwing its weight about in its latest diktats about spelling and orthography. The Beeb reports that the sky has fallen in France, which is going to be an enormous exaggeration.  There are some new spellings to fit with how received french is pronounced: oignon is now ognon, for example. A cogent essay on the topic via 3quarksdaily. The other two classes of change are
a) the loss, as in English over the last decades, of a lot of hyphens: le week-end becomes le weekend; une porte-monnaie become portemonnaie  and 
b) the loss of most examples of the circumflex; l'accent circonflexe.  As kids, we used to call this diacritic 'hat' for obvious reasons.
Like the apostrophe and the tilde ~ in eSpanish, the ^ circonflex accent is used to indicate loss, usually of a now silent 's': what used to be maître, from Latin magister via medieval maistre is now plain unhatted maitre. We've discussed before how French tête and Italian testa [=head] come from soldier's slang meaning box. But it is also used to differentiate homonyms "le dû du travailleur" = the duty of the worker. I guess that L'Académie has realised that there are only a tiny number of cases where the context fails to make clear which meaning is meant. Not au revoir to the the circumflex then, but definitely adieu.

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