English language offers most? opportunities for individuality, development and growth

The other day I came across this quote on the back of one of my books. (I’m trying to decide which books come with me to OSU and which stay home.)

It “is not true, as most other nations believe, that English is ‘an illogical, chaotic language, unsuited for clear thinking,’ it is undeniable that English is less structured grammatically than French, Spanish, Italian or German and therefore prone to slipshod usage and ambiguity. On the other hand, no other European language ‘admits of such poetic exquisiteness’ or offers so many opportunities for individuality, development and growth.”

— blurb on the back cover of The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (2nd ed, rev and abridged by the authors).

I guess by “less structured,” they must mean its over-dependence on word order for meaning and its prone-to-be-unclear pronoun references. I know French and Spanish and Italian are better at the pronoun-accuracy thing, but aren’t those languages dependent on word order just as English is??

Ooh, but I like the point about English offering more “opportunities for individuality, development and growth.” The more loosey-goosey (??) the language, the more syntactically flexible, the more ABLE to be ambiguous, the more “play” there is in the language for poets, the more the writer can impressed her individuality onto it, and the more the writer can grow and change, the more situations English can master (for lack of a better word). So, yeah, English is an especially fertile ground for art and thought.

Hmmm, but why is it so fertile? Simply, because of its impure background, come to think of it. Yay, let’s hear it for impurity! Let’s hear it for diversity! Norman French blending with Anglo-Saxon, then the new “English” later mixing with Greek and Latin.

Okay, so it’s cool how we end up with an especially playful, flexible, and fertile language, and the basic cause is its “impurity” and diversity.

Might there be a lesson there??


3 thoughts on “English language offers most? opportunities for individuality, development and growth

  1. Harumph. Being a non-native speaker of English, this blurb is deliciously provocative to me – especially as I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with it. I almost feel compelled to mention certain strange nuances I know you can only express in my own, obscure mother tongue Finnish. :P But seriously, “no other European language”? I’ve studied quite a few of them, and I immediately see this long list of great authors and magnificent literature in French and Russian rolling before my eyes… And Spanish! I’ve spent entire days literally drunk (wait, isn’t that a pun?) on Neruda’s poetry. It’s potent. Talk about “poetic exquisiteness”.

    But then again… English has such amazing versatility – probably as you said, Laura, because of the diversity both in its origin and in its ongoing present day evolution.

    If you ask me, I love English especially for its brashness and humour. Especially the vibrant modern usage with implied (pop)cultural references is often just impossible to translate. No other language really rocks like English. (Which I guess is why teenagers all over the world pepper their slang with it.)

    And the wonder of all underrated wonders: the immense creative range you have with profanity. So yeah, Shakespeare is nice and all, but if I want to spend time really savouring the English language, I go to urbandictionary.com…

  2. Hi, Essi!

    I was hoping you’d read this post and respond to it! After I posted it, I realized how uncomfortably English-centric Graves and Hodge’s blurb is — that’s why I added the question mark to the title… though, like you said, it does contain some truth.

    I think I was just especially thrilled/intrigued with the idea that a language that is so mixed, so “impure,” so diverse, so heterogeneous could become such a powerful tool for the creation and expression of thought and art. Seemed like a great analogy to how human societies would/could thrive when their members are mixed — mixed religiously, culturally, racially, economically?, linguistically, etc etc.

    Anyway, yes yes yes, you are so right: deeply exquisite literature pours from all other languages, not just other European languages. And heheh, I’d love to hear a couple examples of nuances that can be expressed only in Finnish — that is, IF English can handle it without short circuiting!! :-)

    Wow. Also, I have to say again that I love your writing voice. Delightful and smooth, articulate but conversational. So, are you just one of those people talented with language, including second languages? or are you an example of… hmmmm… of how pouring a few languages inside someone’s noggin (yours) combines to make a soup of sweet and solid writin’?? I mean, hey — maybe it doesn’t just work in societies (at least, I think it does/will), maybe it works in individuals as well. Or ? :-)

    p.s. Thanks for the mention of urbandictionary.com! What a fun site!

  3. Hi Laura!

    This topic has actually spawned a lot of interesting discussions (and even an occasional heated debate) among some people I shared it with, so I definitely wanted to return to it. So, thanks for hours of linguistically oriented fun you provided us (and a few moments of great annoyance, too ;))!

    It really seems to be true that the English grammar is quite flexible compared to many others (I still don’t understand how anyone can write poetry in German, with all the verbs clustered at the end of their sentences!). Someone pointed out to me that English also apparently has the largest vocabulary – don’t know if it’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. That certainly is something to which its diverse and heterogenous origin (and everyday use) contributes a lot.

    As far as I understand, the English language doesn’t really have any official body which would regulate its use and dictate what is right and what is wrong, as many others languages do (for example French and Finnish)? The function of such Official Keepers of Language usually is to maintain its “purity”, sometimes resulting in really annoying rigidity and conservatism. But English just keeps proliferating freely. So, a lot could be said for a little healthy anarchy, too, I guess! ;)

    One thing I’ve always envied is the ease with which you can cross the verb/noun boundary in English. You have a noun, and wanna turn it into a verb? Just add “to”. As easy as that. “To google”, for example – so simple and practical. And the fun things native speakers can do with this feature… (In all other languages that I know, you need to add an ugly verb-ending in stead.) Or the other way around: “a pushover” ,”a knockout”. I’m sure a native speaker never stops to think about all that… as sure as I am that it really comes in handy when using language for creative purposes.

    But yeah, you guys also don’t know what you’re missing. ;) Let’s see if I can think of an example. One of my favourites in Finnish are these different versions you have of many verbs, especially ones that describe some kind of physical activity. First of all, there’s the basic form, easy to translate. Take “koputtaa” as an example – “to knock”. Then there’s a form that implies it’s a rapid, one-time action: “kopauttaa”. And then there’s the form “koputella” which means that it is done repeatedly, over a period of time, often implying less focused or purposeful action, or just shifting the focus of storytelling into the action in stead of its result… or other hard to explain nuances. To achieve the same in English, you either have to use completely different verbs (well, you do have that huge vocabulary to draw from) or other expressions that describe the action. But it’s just not the same… ;)

    Oh, one interesting application of this: “rakastaa” in Finnish means “to love”. The version of this verb that implies a longer period of time is “rakastella” – roughly “to love over a period of time without any particular, clear-cut purpose or goal”… and this is also the verb we use for “making love”. And that is already a little poetic in itself, isn’t it?

    Oh well, Finnish 101 is over, class dismissed! :D

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