English as She is Spoke

Achtung!  Intensivtraining!

German studies continue.  My reverse Brexit – but that’s another story.  The study of another language makes one consider anew one’s own native tongue.  I wonder what it is like to learn English as a second language.  English isn’t terribly inflected – no accusative and dative endings to worry about.  Gender is purely biological, men being masculine, women feminine, and things neuter.  (Okay ships are female – there’s always an exception.)  Plurals are remarkably regular – just add s: thing/things; or es for sake of euphony: box/boxes.  Child/children is an exception but I struggle to think of another unless it’s a Latin loan word: medium/media or stigma/stigmata.  No, the real difficulty with English lies in mastery of idiom.  You see the problem if you examine just one facet of English grammar, say, tense.

Tenses are a bit complicated.  German has one present tense, English at least three.  Ich komme:  I come, I do come, I am coming.  You might add a fourth: I am used to coming; or even a fifth: I be coming.  But most native English speakers hearing the latter would conjure the image of a pirate with a wooden leg and a parrot on his shoulder.  He might be hunting for pieces of eight (eight?  Eight what?) – using a map bearing the legend, “Here be dragons.”

An English learner might imagine that the simplest form of the present tense (“I come” in the above example) would be the commonest in use, but actually to describe that which we are doing in the present, we hardly ever use it.  If I say, “I play the viola”, you would not imagine the instrument to be under my chin right now.  I might more accurately say, “I am in the habit of playing the viola from time to time.”  A German speaker might ask me, “Play you the viola?”  Or a French speaker, “Is it that you play the viola?” or more likely, “You play the viola?”  But an English speaker would say, “Do you play the viola?”  I might reply, “Yes I do play the viola”, but such a reply would resonate with a certain emphasis, so to say: “Yes I do play the viola.  How did you know?”  It’s a minefield.

The odd thing about the simple present tense is that when it is used sequentially, it is understood to be a form of dramatized past tense.  The drama thus recounted may be either fictional or non-fictional.  “He stands up.  He yawns, he stretches, he takes a few paces towards the dresser.  He opens the top drawer.  He takes out a squat, snub-nosed, heavy metallic object.  It is a Walther PPK…”  To write a novel in the present tense much more than a century ago would have been incomprehensible.  It was the rise of cinema, and subsequently television, that made such a mode of expression intelligible.  We tend to watch a movie in the present tense.  That is its impact; it is happening in the here and now.  Then historians borrowed the technique.  You might hear a historian pontificating on Lord Bragg’s In Our Time: “Churchill is in a bind.  He must show loyalty to his chief, but he knows that Halifax, a peer, is in an impossible position, and that therefore it is Churchill for whom the king, albeit reluctantly, must send.”   Personally, I don’t care for either novels or histories to be recounted in the present tense.  But I’m prepared to put up with it, if the material is of interest.  I seem to recall that Robert Harris’ novel about the Dreyfus affair is in the present tense.  I thought it was awfully good, and I admit I stopped noticing after a while.  But still, there is something portentous about the past masquerading as the present.

Is there any such thing as a novel written entirely in the future tense?  A poem, maybe?  Yeats’ Lake isle of Innisfree?      

The various past tenses in English can be as confusing as those in the present.  I have gone, I went, I used to go, I was going.  We don’t say “I have went”, though I don’t suppose there is any reason why we shouldn’t, went being the past tense of the verb to wend.  That reminds me of the wee Glasgow boy whose mother asked him how he had enjoyed his first day at school.

“Och, ah wish ah hadnae go’ed.”

Naturally his mother corrected him.  “You mean, you wish tae goad you hadnae went.”

Then there’s the pluperfect – the remote past seen from the perspective of the past:  I thought… I had thought…  I don’t suppose there is any reason why this recherche into temps perdu shouldn’t carry on ad infinitum; the hall of mirrors of reminiscence – I had thought, I had had thought, I had had had thought…

But the real can of worms, in English, is the subjunctive.  The English learner might wish to think twice before going there.  It’s an optional extra.  Many native speakers, perhaps the majority, never use it.  The subjunctive is rather hifalutin, almost a class thing.  Perhaps for the foreigner that is its lure.  Master it, and you receive the keys to High Society.  You move effortlessly amid the Establishment, One of Us.  Avoid it, and you remain an artisan, calling a spade a spade.  But of course the real trick with the subjunctive is to master it, and then never use it.  It’s like a nuclear deterrent, invisibly making its presence felt.  Kipling’s If might have been written entirely in the subjunctive, but it sits under the surface.  Its blatant use is an affectation.  If you adopt the subjunctive, you become a theoretician moving in a rarefied atmosphere; a dandy, a fop.

A distinction is made between the present subjunctive (“If I were a rich man…”) and the historic subjunctive (“Then I thought, would that I had been born rich…”) but the whole essence of the subjunctive is that it lies outside the realm of quotidian experience.  It is not a tense; it is a mood.  In considering what might have been, you step through a sliding door into a realm beyond time.  “Would that I had known then what I were later to discover.  Had it been so, I had done better.  Had I taken more cognisance of that which, heretofore, I had had removed from my consciousness, I had had wiser counsel.  I had better had done nothing.”

A German learning English might say to himself, “I had better avoid that.”  Yes, you had better had had.

All Herr Müller wanted to do was order an espresso in Prȇt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s