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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

There's Surrealism, and Then There's Grammar (2016-11-24)

Photograph by C. Osborne, July 2013. Photograph by C. Osborne, July 2013.
C. Osborne, July 2013

One description of surrealism is that it is an attempt to capture the strange state we experience while dreaming, when all manner of random juxtapositions make sense, or some strange combination of objects is, within the dreamscape, gut-bustingly funny or viscerally disgusting. Then again, dreams can be startlingly coherent or even lucid, although they may still include features that are absurd on consideration after we wake up. The latest research connects dreaming with how we process the memory of our day to day experience and its associated emotions, and that in our dreams we may be sorting out and practicing how to react to situations in our waking lives. Consider all of that, and the fact that we still don't understand very much about dreaming, though the evidence is that not dreaming is detrimental to our mental health. You may be wondering how I could possibly have gotten onto this topic, considering today's feature photo is an oldie but a goodie from an extended trip in eastern canada. But to me this little sign was more than a little surreal at the time, not because of its very sensible directions, but because of the grammar issue in the french text that someone simply could not abide.

Just to be clear, I am not mocking the mysterious editor of the sign. There's something about travelling, probably not getting quite enough sleep, and coping with places that are not home that can make us far more sensitive to all sorts of things we might have ignored or merely given staff a head's up about at home. What gave me pause was how surreal grammar is, and how none of us are indifferent to it. It is easy to find books that aren't too technical that reflect a remarkable range of views on it, and nobody is immune to developing their own views. The strange career of the word "concerning" – it is generally a verbal form that seems to be developing a second adjectival use – in north american english has certainly made me aware that a change in usage can be quite surprising to the ear. The surprise comes not so much from whether the usage is wrong or right (language change is just change), but from the fact that I still understood what the other person meant. On the other hand, I have a colleague who could be reduced to paroxysms of outrage on hearing someone else using "concerning" in its new guise, while not realizing she had used the word in that way herself. One more data point for the evidence that we pick up changes in word usage and grammar unconsciously, and may use them unconsciously, even if we feel sure the usage is wrong when we turn our minds to it. The surrealness of grammar is a real thing though, not just something apparent related to jet lag and canada's historically fraught language politics.

Every language has a grammar, including the ones used to program computers and that rarely recognized member of the class, mathematics. If languages didn't have grammar, and the grammar of each language wasn't fairly consistent, then they wouldn't be helpful tools for communicating with. Notice I said "fairly consistent" and this is because no language is perfectly consistent. If that state ever happens in the real world of spoken languages, it probably only holds for a vanishingly small period, even for the groups of protestants who migrated to the present day united states, determined to stick to the vocabulary used in their chosen edition of the christian bible. How frustrating it must have been to find their language was inexorably changing anyway.

At least among its native speakers, english has a reputation for inconsistency, although that may actually be the wrong word for the situation. In many ways, english has become a patchwork language, chockfull of borrowed and constructed words at varying levels of naturalization. Consider the difference between a word like "pyjamas", which can be traced back to persian, versus "schadenfreude" from german. The former has become rather ordinary, we hardly notice it. Schadenfreude, even though english is a germanic language as well, not so much. Quite apart from borrowing, english has a range of irregular verbs and plurals that are hold outs from different dialects and earlier times. For example, the plural of "foot" is "feet" because changing the vowel used to be a common way to make plurals. If you want to find a verb that is irregular in just about any language provided it exists, check out "to be" or "to go." In english, "to be" especially is a sort of grab bag.

According to my OED, "be" itself is derived from old english bēon, and that verb was already "defective," that is, its conjugation was made up of forms from three other verbs (the other two are wesan and a verb with a root something like *isi-). "Am" is from another verb again from a time before germanic languages were even a thing, and apparently nobody knows where "are" came from. That said, it's tempting to see it as somehow made up by analogy to "were." Pretty much the only thing that holds the verb "to be" in together is that english speakers have all learned to use it and conjugate it in all its rag bag, pasted together glory. Compared to "to be," "to go" is ridiculously simple. Most of its forms come from old english gān, and "went" is from another old english word, "wendan" which means something like "turn around and go back." For the truly surreal that we actually use every day all the time if we speak english, I think "to be" wins hands down.

The verb "to be" is also mightily irregular in french, and it is no coincidence that it is a form of that very verb that started this whole thing, including the helpful sign edit illustrated above. I should also add that if you are familiar with french and read the sign again, you'll notice something else surreal about it: try translating literally what the french said before the correction was added, and compare it to the english. You'll recognize the idiomatic english expression behind the incorrect french right away, even though that isn't the wording of the english on the sign itself.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2016
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2016 17:57:39