dilluns, d’agost 28, 2006

Yr iaith fain [The Thin Language] (English / Welsh)

This was an email post to Clwb Malu Cachu regarding someone's use of the Welsh expression "yr iaith fain" to describe English. The Welsh expression means, "the thin language."

That's interesting Suw, I never thought of yr iaith fain as being pejorative to the English speaking people, although it may be a well deserved criticism of the language itself.

While yr iaith fain has basically addressed the phonetic differences between Welsh and English, I often think of it as addressing some other problems with English (any speech system has problems, so no, I'm not saying Welsh is perfect). My native language is English too (I come from England 2.0, ie. America), and since I'm in the language biz, I've generally come to agree that English is sort of squishy and sloppy. When compared to the precision of the French lexicon (the specificity of meaning related to names of things, not the ease at which one could determine inherent meaning, for that German does really well), or the the rich complexity of nuance in the Spanish verbal system (there are tenses and moods in Spanish that neither English nor Welsh can communicate), or when compared to the ability that both German and French have to be polite (German has levels of social grace that French can only dream of attaining and which are totally alien to English). German also has away of dealing with the specificity of spatial relationships that require hand gestures in most other languages. Welsh has a way with metaphor and sound that makes it excellent for poetry (no surprise) and actually conceiving of spiritual spaces and concepts that are generally alien to most other languages I've encountered. Also Welsh is really excellent in describing the physical geography of places and natural settings that English approaches but mostly fails except when borrowing words from Welsh (think on the English words related to valley for example).

What English does really well at is play with certain words like get. I love when my students will ask me how do you say "get" in Spanish (or French, or...) Of course, one only "gets" in English. Although some of my Spanish students have tried to "coger un frí­o," literally "gather (catch) a cold," but this makes no sense in Spanish. Sometimes the Welsh word cael approximates the meaning, as in, "I got a car," "Ces i gar." But I've yet to hear anyone in Welsh say something like "cael i fyny" unless they were non-native speakers. Of course there is semantic drift in all languages, and English is the most likely source of external influence on Welsh for such things, so we're bound to see more, not less of this.

The other wild thing that English does is with its prepositions. I've never encountered a language with wilder prepositions. German prepositions confuse the hell out of English speakers, but that's because they are generally uber-specific. I mean, I can say in English: "Slow down," or "slow up." I can say, "sit down," or "sit up," and here the meaning is different. I can say, "get over it," which can mean to physically get over an object, like a wall, or I can mean "get over your wingeing about your sorry romance." I've also concluded that real, everyday English is a very agricultural language. In spite of English speaking cultures now being at the fore of science, English isn't actually all that great when it comes to such specific concepts.

In fact, more oddly perhaps than any other language that I know, it has elected to construct two languages, two distinct set of codes in order to function, one for the everyday world, and one for science. A couple years ago I was at a friend's home, and he's quite an aircraft enthusiast. While stopping off to visit my aunt (hehe, there's a good Monroe County, Pennsylvania-ism for yas), I noticed he had a small reading collection there. So while perusing his magazines I encountered one that was about aircraft. I opened up to one article after another and realized that after more than 30 years of speaking English, I had absolutely no idea what was being talked about in those articles. The jargon was so specific that to the unitiated it was incomprehensible without a specialized technical dictionary. So, in essence, English has two very distinct sets of codes (which is to its benefit). The primary code is used in everyday conversation and is more Germanic in essence. The other uses only small syntactical and linking words from the Germanic past (by large and far) and depends heavily on an Anglicized lexicon coming largely from French (and therefore Latin) or from mots-savants constructed directly from Latin or Greek employing rules generally adopted from French.

Interestingly, this may also be the case of real Welsh, where the everyday is very Welsh and very natural, but where many other ideas are expressed with English code-switches moving right alone in otherwise Welsh sentences. English speakers don't think of themselves as speaking French a great deal of the time (even in the everyday English, which I'm using very much on purpose in this response, is still very French). Most English speakers however are not functional in the scientific/technicall jargon, and most people who are in technical and scientific fields are not linguistically sensitive enough to realize what's happening. Whereas in Welsh, many people realize the code-switching has gone on and view it as "bad Welsh" or even a deficiency in the language. Of course that's all social and subjective perception (and that would be a fancy way of saying hogwash).

Now it's true that most languages have jargon, but, the jargon in those languages is generally more closely related to the original language, even when the knowledge was appropriated from another language and culture. In French and Spanish for example, the jargon is Latinate, for obvious reasons. In German it still tends to be German, altho the influence of Global English (oh Lord, sit up, sit down, get over it, poor, poor planet Earth!) is changing that. In Welsh, there has been a long tradition of jargonizing loan words with a Welsh edge; so many technical words in Welsh are adaptations or translations of English words, and this process if still on going. I remember, since I'm old enough to (pah!), when the term "cympiwtr" or "compiwtr" was widely used in Welsh. It's been a month of Sundays since I've seen that word now. Everyone uses "cyfrifiadur."

Ok, all that long winded text to say that at the end of the day, as a native English speaker, I generally find my native language to be clumsy and squishy. Most functional speakers of English are unable to use, and are perhaps unaware of how the other code in English can be used, to be specific and eloquent, largely due to a lack of education and a generally global move to proletariat models of conduct and speech (one who uses big words is thought of as arrogant, yo) (wow, I managed that one with only one French word, hehe arrogant of course). Groso modo, the communicative potential of English when compared to other languages is rather poor in my opinion and in my experience. Yes, it's true that English is the big man in campus these days, but that is due to a huge set of sociological and historical variables, and not solely to its relative superiority or inferiority at expressing ideas.

And sadly, one of the things that gives English its unique charms, its earthiness, and down hominess, is fading faster and faster away. One thing we can do as English speakers to preserve what really is the saving grace in a squishy-name-oriented-of-weak-verbal-nuance-language is maintain the use of color colloquial and regional expressions in our English. Such idiomatic expressions tend to die out in urban cultures, and this, I feel, is a great loss. As Global English, by definition an urban language, takes over from real English, like Upstate-New York-Mohawk Valley-English, or Southern-Louisiana-St. Bernard Parish-English, or Cotswolds English, we, the speakers of the language actually lose control over it, being forced to choose between our regional vulgarities and a form of the language people in China will understand (personally, I see no reason to make it easier on the Chinese, or anyone else for that matter, but then I'm a bit possessive of my squishy English language even so...). That is very unfortunate. Of course, the march of development of English into other languages, I think, will continue on, but the exchange between regional Englishes and Global English will mitigate that development.

Ironically, Welsh may outlive global English, as the regional Englishes continue to develop and evolve down new paths, and Global Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, or whatever comes to replace a global English that will, there can be little doubt, be the "Latin" of the future.