EDITOR’S NOTE: The columns of Bill Duncan are being reprinted in The News-Review. Duncan, who died in November 2011, wrote a weekly column for The News-Review and The Capital Press of Salem from 1981 to 2011. Duncan wrote the following column in June 2002. His thoughts are still pertinent to today.
Over the years I have taught college writing classes, which includes a certain amount of grammar. One year I had a foreign exchange student in my class who logically questioned the illogic of the English language in an essay she wrote as a class assignment.
She pointed out why English is so hard to learn. We, who have spoken English as the first words we could form with our vocal chords, have little understanding of the struggles others have to learn this complex language, but she seemed to put it in perspective for those of us who take English for granted.
She questioned the paradox of a boxing ring that is square, an eggplant with no egg, a hamburger without ham, a pineapple that does not come from an apple or a pine tree.
In her opinion we should all be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. She questioned why people recite at a play and play at a recital? Or ship by truck? Or have noses that run and feet that smell?
How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same? Or a wise man and a wise guy be opposites?
I have studied the English language for most of my adult life. I am still fascinated by the greatness of this fluid language which has borrowed, stolen and integrated words from every language spoken or written.
When Julius Caesar invaded Great Britain some 2,000 years ago, spoken English didn’t exist. Some 500 years later, a language called English was spoken by as few people as today speak Cherokee. The rudimentary language that was spoken and written at that time would be incomprehensible today.
My son Barry, of Willows, California, who is an amateur astronomer, once asked his old professor dad this language riddle. Why is it that when the stars are out in the dark of the night, they are visible, but in the light of day, they are invisible?
That was easier to answer than my student’s question of how can a house burn up when it burns down. Or why does a fire alarm go off when it goes on.
OK, OK, so it is language lunacy, but as crazy as it is, English is the predominant language spoken and written by more than 300 million people, according to Bill Bryson, author of “The Mother Tongue,” who added “... and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to.”
If you are as old as I am you probably were introduced to “The Plain English Handbook” when you were in the eighth grade. It is brown with Shakespeare’s picture on the cover. In it I first learned to diagram sentences, still the tried and true method of teaching sentence structure.
One of my daughters was having difficulty in an English class when she was in junior high school. I was tutoring her by using the diagram method. When she told her teacher I was using this tutoring technique the teacher called me and said I must stop because that was an antiquated system and I was only confusing her.
You can rest assured I had words with the teacher and continued tutoring with diagrams.
When I was in college in California I attended a lecture by S.I. Hayakawa, who quoted from a book, “The Education of T.C. Mits,” written by Lillian and Hugh Lieber, about how Mits is assaulted daily with words which Hayakawa described as a virtual verbal Niagara.
We are all under that verbal assault, but consider, if you will, the non-English speaking person trying to make sense out of this sentence:
“This insurance policy is invalid for any person who is an invalid.”
English is indeed language lunacy and I am crazy about it.