AMEND CORNER: I should have learned Swahili

Posted 10/24/17

When I talk or write anything, it always has to be English, and that’s too bad. I did take Latin for two years in high school, and I find that quite helpful when doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. Other than that, opportunities to …

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AMEND CORNER: I should have learned Swahili


If I have one regret in life, it’s that I am totally monolingual.

When I talk or write anything, it always has to be English, and that’s too bad. I did take Latin for two years in high school, and I find that quite helpful when doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. Other than that, opportunities to use what Latin I remember are pretty scarce. Back when I took it, Latin might have helped me follow the Catholic Mass, but being a Baptist, I rarely had to follow the Mass. I have even less need for it now, since the Mass is now mostly celebrated in English, so I’d have even less need to practice Latin.

I’m not knocking English. There’s nothing wrong with English. It’s a perfectly fine language, and it has served me well. I successfully courted my wife in English, and I can order pizza in English. Besides that, I earned a passable income for 33 years correcting the English of teenagers, and when I got tired of that, I managed to use it well enough to write news stories and essays like this one.

The big problem with English, and probably with most other languages, is that it isn’t just one language, but many languages. General English is what you hear on the street, but if you want to sound smart, you adopt formal or academic English. On other occasions, you might lapse into non-standard English, the kind of English in which you might toss in an “ain’t,” or say you misuse “learned” by saying something like “I learned my kids not to say ‘ain’t,’” when you really mean you “taught” them.

Even though I taught English, I was never a fundamentalist when it came to grammar. As a teacher, I made every effort to teach students the importance of using proper English. If you don’t, people might think you’re an ignoramus. Still, I know of no one who can explain why using “ain’t” ain’t proper. It is an ugly sounding word, which is why people think it is improper, and it’s best to go along with them, especially when interviewing for a job.

Similarly, nobody knows who decided that “me and Joe” was improper and “Joe and me” is correct, at least when the objective case is called for. Nor can anyone explain why splitting an infinitive is a linguistic sin. Captain Kirk’s mission for the Enterprise, “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” sounds just right. “Boldly to go” is awkward, and “To go boldly” just doesn’t have the right rhythm. “To boldly go” sounds right, no matter what language fundamentalists say.

Actually, teaching proper usage has its pitfalls, as you might realize if you have tried teaching high school sophomores the difference between the verbs “lie” and “lay.” No matter how delicately you explain the difference, some kid invariably focuses on a certain colloquial use of the word “lay” and begins snickering. The snickering spreads through the class like the latest flu virus variant spreads through a roomful of unvaccinated people. Pretty soon, everyone in the class is either giggling or blushing. The only way out is to move on to another verbal rule involving “sit” and “set.” That’s probably fine, since people use “lie” and “lay” incorrectly most of the time — unless they are compositions for English class.

Accents are another difficulty with English. Recently, I watched a British TV show set in the Shetland Islands.  Along with the unfamiliar colloquialisms of the Shetlands, the accents of the characters left me wondering, “Huh,” on a regular basis. British accents often make hearing English an adventure, but the Shetland dialect compounded the problem.

Even more interesting was a series shot in Wales. It seems that every episode was shot twice, once in English and the other in Welsh — a language known for long words that often appear to be mere collections of random consonants. I was especially interested in highway signs and signs identifying buildings, all of which were bilingual.

My favorite was the sign identifying the SSFYDLIAD GWYDDORAU AMAETHYDDOL A BOTANEGAL. The top half of the sign tells those of you who don’t speak Welsh that it identifies the INSTITUTE OF AGRICULTURAL AND BOTANICAL SCIENCES. If you do happen to speak Welsh, I’d be interested in knowing how that name is pronounced.

Studying the language is an interesting pursuit, and over the years I’ve gotten a kick out of looking into the history and the evolution of English. However, I still wish I had learned a second or even a third language in my youth. Fluency in Spanish would have been useful for me on a number of occasions, and Swahili would have enriched my trip to Africa. Today, my daughter’s mother-in-law sometimes turns to Khmer to talk to her son and daughter, and I wish I could talk to her in her native language.

Unfortunately, my time for learning a new language has long since passed, and it’s probably just as well. I don’t think I could remember the Welsh words on that sign, let alone pronounce them.

Even so, I could find my way around Wales. The people live there are kind enough to put the English words on the top of the sign, so monolingual people like me don’t get lost.