The two-faced English language

The son of a Brazilian friend and his fiancee came to America to marry. I met them and helped them find a place to live and served as witness at their wedding in San Francisco’s City Hall.

He said to me, “English is easy to learn. It won’t take me long.” His bride was not so sure. His was a remarkable statement and showed how some foreign-language speakers get stuck permanently in the pidgin-English mode. Pronunciation, unlike the Romance languages, is changeable even when two words are spelled similarly. Is “height” said the same as “weight”? Is “Winding” as in winding a watch the same as “wind” as in the elements?

Then there is the trap of a word having two meanings with changed emphasis on syllables. “Refuse'” as in No and “ref’use” as in garbage. And just for fun: “flat” as in apartment or “flat” as in lacking shape.

Even native speakers, and more than a few TV anchors, pronounce “prece’dence” meaning being ahead of, as “press-edence” which means established in fact.

As a student at the Loretto School in Shanghai (and three others where I spent an average of six months at each during one war and another revolution. It didn’t help starting a semester in the middle of a textbook), I was bewildered by the rules of grammar as expounded by Sister Grace Claire. They sounded so complicated and made little sense when she parsed sentences. The very word “parse” gave me pimples. I see now how she failed to convey the music of the congregation of words in a sentence. Instead, they were clumps of sod with no discernible value to each other. If she had only said, in explanation, “Giving a present to he and I is incorrect, because you cannot give a present to ‘he‘ or ‘I‘. All you have to do is perform that test, and then you will know which pronoun to use.”  It took me decades to shake the terror of those early lessons.

My young Brazilian friend went home to Brazil satisfied that he had learned “English”.


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