English is, in my opinion, a rather beautiful language. It has this endearing quality of being simultaneously rhythmically poetic and pliable. With relatively little effort, even text in the most mundane of contexts can seem to be intricate prose. In the hands of an adept speaker, this same mundane topic can come alive with eloquence.
This innate beauty to the language, however, often goes unnoticed to those who speak it proficiently. It seems to me that English often assumes the role of merely a means to an end rather than a medium worth noting in and of itself. This is an attribute confined to major languages, even those who serve as lingua francas to mass extent. For an Icelander it provides stark contrast to the linguistic purism of my native tongue. Icelandic is regarded by its speakers as a cultural treasure, and to this day it is fiercely guarded. Where others have succumbed to the constant and overwhelming need for neologisms (the Danish word for “overhead projector” is, rather anticlimactically, “overhead projector” with a Danish accent), Icelanders have held ground (we call it “myndvarpi”). Incidentally there are a few English words that originate from Icelandic (glove has an ancestor in the Icelandic glófi).
As much as I love Icelandic, I think the radically different approach of English, in freely accepting changes to the language and influences from a wide array of sources, is indeed its greatest strength. It is a vast language with a plethora of linguistic roots, reaching far and wide, and one that freely adapts to convey tone and meaning.
A wonderful example of this is a fantastic book I recently read, called “We need to talk about Kevin”, by Lionel Shriver. With her stunning use of language she paints a vivid picture of the sharp, bleak intelligence of the protagonist. The consistently cold, orotund and hopeless tone makes the book mentally exhausting to read. Shriver’s mastery of language is evident.
One trademark of her writing is the ease with which she uses the outskirts of English vocabulary and literary references, freely intertwining phrases and words like; “raison d’être”, naïveté or “I have crossed my Rubicon.” It made me think of what is ultimately the whole point of this blog post; the mystic oddities of the English language.
Are all Americans really so well versed in ancient Roman history that one can throw around a phrase like the one above without being faced with a few puzzled looks? Have all the people that say “a rose by any other name…”, with a knowing smile, actually read Romeo and Juliet? Is such proficiency in the French language to be generally expected that the intricate, almost philosophical meaning of raison d’être is widely understood?
Why is it that many words and phrases are left largely unchanged (naïve, kindergarten, ad infinatum, pro bono, …et cedera) while others are in the process of being anglicized (envelope to provide just one example)? Why on earth is “flaccid” almost invariably pronounced as [ˈfla-səd] (flassid) when virtually all other words with a double -c have a distinctive -ks sound?
Speaking of letters; why is -w pronounced double-you? To quote the linguistic genius and poet Christian Bök, from his poem about the letter:
It is the V you double, not the U, as if to use
two valleys in a valise is to savvy the vacuum
of a vowel at a powwow in between sawteeth.
For a foreigner and eternal student of the English language, it often seems rather mystifying indeed. I might not get my questions answered this time, but in any case I highly recommend We need to talk about Kevin and the recent film adaptation, which is truly a phenomenal film. Christian Bök’s ingenious study of language (each of the five chapters contain only one vowel) in his book of poesy titled Eunoia is certainly worth noting as well. In case the title leaves you puzzling, “eunoia” is the shortest word in the English language that contains all five vowels. Rather fittingly, the word means “beautiful thinking”.