Thursday, 9 August 2012

English as she is spoke

English is a frightful language for me. It is my native tongue, but this does not mean that I know it as well as I like to think. For instance, no English teacher I had in my five years of secondary education gave me a comprehensive run-down of English tenses. Instead, I pieced together elements of Ancient Greek, Latin, French and German (and overheard once that Russian has a future pluperfect, which sounds delightfully over-the-top). None of those languages is English, and even the education I received in those languages failed to cover things properly. For instance, on learning Greek I was told that Greek's aorist tense was an element in had in common with English, as no other language could say "I did", instead requiring either the imperfect (I was doing, I began to do, I used to do) or the perfect (I have done). For years I believed this to be the case, and made quite a fool of myself when I ran into someone who knew better than I. If you want to read up on this sort of thing, it's one of those funny little areas where Wikipedia is quite reliable.

This is not simply a modern problem. It was my father who taught me Ancient Greek, and he was at school in the fifties and sixties. He clearly did not receive a comprehensive grounding in English grammar, either, and had to flesh out his understanding by way of other languages. I presume that there are tiny cliques of people at secretive schools who are inducted into the ways of English, perhaps abroad, and it is only through their efforts that English grammar can still be understood! Perhaps you think I am being unreasonable in being sorrowful that English teachers do not cover English in its entirety. After all, it has clearly not been demanded for decades.

I recall faintly what we did cover in secondary school. To quote Henry Reed, " Today we have naming of parts." We got out our little green English exercise books, and copied down definitions of what a verb was, a noun, a conjunction, an adjective, and all those other little ephemera. I remember too the catalogue of collective nouns: a murder of ravens, a pride of lions, a troop of monkeys. I really can only remember those three, as we never revisited collective nouns. We had spelling tests, which were usually so easy as to lull one into a false sense of security. These were based on whichever book we were reading at the time. In my first year, I had to read The Red Pony, which I found awfully depressing. There was no spark of hope anywhere in it, nor in my life at the time.* We also read Walkabout and Kpo the Leopard, neither of which made strong impressions on me at twelve, and which some of my contemporaries have wholly forgotten. I assume we did more things than this in the first year, but they have all rather slipped out of my mind, like the leaves of a badly bound book.

The remaining years are less fixed in my mind. We went to some plays (Macbeth, Death of A Salesman, Great Expectations) and read a variety of texts that often bored me rigid: Macbeth, Great Expectations, Julius Caesar, a selection of war poetry (Henry Reed above, for instance, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, &c), some Shakespearean sonnets, and a very disturbing book called The Collector, which I cannot recommend as reading material for teenagers of fourteen or fifteen. One of the less perverse things about that particular book was that it contained references to The Tempest, which our teacher had to painstakingly explain, as our Shakespeare play that year was Macbeth. Some elements of English were introduced to us: synecdoche, for instance. I usually found that I got a more comprehensive grounding in terminology from my Classics teachers. When it came to the metre of Shakespeare's plays, for instance, it was introduced as Iambic Pentameter, we were given a brief rundown on how it worked, and then we dashed off. I do not remember it coming up again. Introducing us to The Aeneid, our teacher took us through all the rules of hexameter, including all the oddities. When we studied Euripides' Medea, that teacher took us through the new meter found in the parts spoken by the characters.

I rather lost faith in English as a subject, and have yet to regain it. Maybe I am just being a naughty little naysayer, viewing the bad things and blindly ignoring that I did at least learn a few collective nouns, read a few good . . . no, I can't call any of those set texts good. Anyway, I did learn something about verse. It was not a complete waste of time. It is just a bit sad that I learned more about English from studying ancient languages, and even then I erred. Anyway, today is apparently Women's Day and Book Lover's Day, so I conclude by inviting you to go read a book that has women in it - which is fairly easy, I should think! I'm settling down to A Passage to India again.

* At the time I was being bullied, and my teacher (form teacher, English teacher and the man who chose the book) refused to help. It is hence that I can trace my earliest dislike of "classic literature". A depressing book, that is supposedly a classic, makes you want to kill yourself when you already want to kill yourself because you're being bullied.


  1. I'm reading Game of thrones at the moment, it has a lot of women in it, and is very entertaining, I did not like English at school, however I started reading novels by age 12 (the first novel I ever read was the cross of iron, followed by a lot of Sven Hassel and Leo Kessler) and most of my literacy was gained through reading, looking at my choice of reading material it maybe lucky I can even read.

    1. Aye, it's much the same in my case: it's largely thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle and a host of other late-Victorian adventure writers that I had any interest in books at all! Were I an English teacher, I'd get my head round the fact that a lot of kids want chases, derring-do and surprise, not exquisitely formed Dickensian social commentary! :-D


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