Published: Sep 11, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Sep 11, 2012 02:38 PM
The state of the English language is in crisis. We have stopped teaching grammar in our schools, and the exercise of diagramming sentences has been dropped.
Diagramming sentences once taught children the structure of the language, from its simplest of components to its most complex. For example, many supposedly educated people say him going when they should say his going. A possessive pronoun is used with a gerund or the -ing form of the noun, i.e. His joining the Navy upset Johns mother. These days, many people have never heard of a gerund or a possessive pronoun.
One common mistake is the mix-up of lie and lay. I can lie down in the present, but I only lay down when I am using the past tense. There is a lot of confusion because the word lay can do two things. It is the past tense of to lie, as in, I lay down yesterday and fell asleep. It is also used with a direct object, as in, I will lay the book on the chair. A person is needed to do the action, since the book cannot act on its own. The past tense in this case is laid, as in She laid the napkins on the table.
I am particularly frustrated when a person says, I am done. You are not cooked in the oven. You are finished. Another common problem is the use of a noun when an adjective is needed. The American-Mexican border is correct. American-Mexico border is not. Mexico is a noun, and when one speaks of a border, the noun must be modified by an adjective. Therefore it is Mexican.A vigorous language
We live in the Triangle area, in which there are eight universities and colleges. Does any one of these schools teach grammar?
English is a vigorous language that came to us from the Anglo-Saxons. Although the Norman invasion in 1066 made French the language of the court, the yeomanry and peasants spoke English. In 1300, King Henry IV finally made English the official language of the court.
All of the small words that make up our everyday vocabulary can be traced to the English of the Middle Ages. French words borrowed before the 13th century mostly pertained to the church, such as friar, relic, honor and charity.
Geoffrey Chaucer used English when he wrote The Canterbury Tales. We know it now as Middle English, since it was the language spoken in London at the end of the 1300s. Although Chaucers spelling is different from ours, and although he uses old words like cleped (which means called or named), his poetry can still be read and understood by modern readers.
Half of English words today are borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian languages; half come from French and Latin. The English language also has taken words from India, such as calico, gingham and jodhpurs. From American Indian languages, we have words like skunk, raccoon and opossum. We also have taken the Indian names of rivers, such as the Mississippi.Wonderful nuances
Both speakers and writers find wonderful nuances of meaning in English. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) dipped into this treasure chest of language and, like an alchemist, he changed the speech of the people into gold. He saw the revival of classical learning and a new interest in reading Homer, Virgil and Horace in their original texts. Although it was claimed that Shakespeare had little Latin and less Greek, he in fact referenced these authors frequently in his work. Shakespeares writings greatly influenced the development of English.
The King James Bible has also played an important role in the history of our language. Although there were previous English translations, it was not until William Tyndales version that the language asserted itself and formed into the ringing phrases with which we are familiar.
In 1611, a group of translators created the King James Bible, largely based on Tyndales version. Because of this Bibles wide influence on Western literature, William Tyndales marvelous words and phrases still sing across the ages.
We, the inheritors of English, pay very little attention to this rich and wonderful lineage. For this reason, our friends from the British Isles often cringe when they hear Americans speak.
It disappoints me to see poorly written English. When we disrespect our language, we disrespect our history. We should show our appreciation for this beautiful language by learning to speak and write correctly.
Ariana Mangum lives in Chapel Hill.