Mind Your Language
- Anjuly Mathai
Story Dated: Friday, August 3, 2012 12:26 hrs IST
One of the earliest lessons I learned is that a ‘Please’ tails a ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank you’ always follows a ‘No.’ If you want to go to the toilet, raise your hand and say ‘Excuse Me.’
The English are nothing if not polite. Even their swear words have a cultured feel to them when compared to their Indian counterparts. (I call it the Mr Bean test. When it comes to swear words, if you can picture Mr Bean saying it, don’t EVER use it.)
A lifetime of indoctrination has still left me flailing in a cesspool of the English language. Getting my ‘whos’ and ‘whoms’ right is a matter of luck than knowledge. Should data be ‘is’ or ‘are’? Every time I use a tricky preposition I feel like I’m entering a trapdoor. And clichés; there are days when your mind is a sewage pump of clichés and you could rummage around for hours and come up with nothing else. I went through a phase where for months, whenever I searched for a plural adjective nothing but the word ‘myriad’ would come to mind. It was so severe that I developed a chronic allergy to the word. Now I avoid it like the plague. (Yet another cliché. Are they aiming for world domination?)
Perhaps the problem is that I’ve always navigated the language more by feel than by rules. It seems nonsensical to adhere to rules in a language where there are as many exceptions to rules as the rules themselves. When someone says something like ‘quantifiers are further divided into countable and uncountable nouns’ they might as well be speaking Spanish. I still have no idea what ‘interjections’ or ‘modifiers’ are.
Or perhaps the problem is that English, much like the people, is a ‘borrowing’ language. Its vocabulary is drawn from German, Dutch, Latin and Ancient Greek. As Bill Bryson put it, ‘English grammar is so complex and confusing for the one very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin, a language with which it has precious little in common.’
And now with social media comes the merciless butchering of the language. We live in a culture obsessed with truncation. Short is the new thin. The Bronte sisters might need their smelling salts when confronted with lols, brbs and asaps. A friend once messaged ‘Hey sup’ and my mother asked, ‘Do your friends call you sup?’
It’s not just written English that’s confounding. The ‘t’ remains silent in ‘valet’ but not in ‘Moet’?(as in the champagne) When do you ask for the bill and when for the check? Is the ‘a’ in vase pronounced as an ‘aye’ or an ‘ahh’. And don’t even get me started on hors d’oeuvres.