Thursday, 5 June 2014

Why Can't the English Teach their Children How to Speak?

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now, should be antique.
If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do,
why you might be selling flowers, too.

The above stanza from the overture to "My Fair Lady" - a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's classic "Pygmalion" remains in my mind a catchy (and not to say, classic) critique of the degradation of language. The dead-pan of Professor Higgins's reaction to the mewling "G'on!" of Eliza Doolittle - "I ask you sir, what sort of word is that" - is my personal favourite.

Living in a foreign country provides me the opportunity to observe not only the use (and mis-use) of my own language, but also the chance to do likewise for another.  In this case, the language is French (Professor Higgins's take on the French - "they don't care what they say, so long as they pronounce it properly), as I live in Paris.

Had an interesting discussion yesterday with a colleague, who had sent out an all-office e-mail announcing the secondment of three new people to his leadership.  In the mail, he announced that "Jane Doe will report to Mike Rowe" (both names fictitious), and signed the letter "Mike Rowe."

I kidded "Mike" that he had taken the sort of royal "we" approach, naming himself in a letter he later signed, rather than saying that "Jane" would "report to me."  "Mike" is an Australian, and thus pretty easy-going, and we had a laugh about the whole thing.  (As an aside, it turns out the reason for the somewhat awkward wording was the need for the whole thing to go through internal legal review so as not to offend, and this language was deemed sufficiently bland).  

In the discussion, I remembered the struggle many Americans have with the rules on when to deploy the subjective case of the first-person-singular (i.e., "I"), vs. when the objective case (i.e., "me") should be used.  One hears frequently casual use of "Jim and me went to the game," or, "send the tickets to my wife and I," in a stilted over-compensation.

The whole thing is "solved" (in the sense that the Gordian Knot was solved by cutting it), by the increasing use of "myself" in place of "me."  But one also hears - especially from professional athletes - the use of their own names as a means of solution.  I am old enough to remember Bo Jackson, who often talked of himself in th third person.  ("Bo was pretty tired, but still showed up and competed.")  The whole thing led to the "Bo knows" ad campaign of the mid to late 80s.  If you're over 30 and American, chances are pretty good, you saw the ads.  They were for the shoe company Nike, I believe.

"Mike," though over 40, is Australian, and he never heard of Bo Jackson.

Interestingly, our colleague - not Jane, in this case - is French, and was intrigued by the whole discussion.  She seemed a bit surprised about the whole thing, and I tried to explain that it's the sort of mistake that no native French speaker would ever make.  

In the discussion, I asked her if she ever - in all of her born days - had heard a fellow French person say "déjeuner avec Olivier et je" (have lunch with Olivier and I).

She laughed instantly and said, no. Of course not.

French, unlike English, actually has an academy whose role it is to police the language.  The French people, of course, make mistakes.  But this sort of casual laziness is generally not tolerated.  In point of fact, it remains a minor scandal here in Paris, nearly a decade later, that President Nicholas Sarkozy used the futur antérieur when he should have used the plus-que-parfait.  I can only imagine what would happen if he committed the sin of using "data" in the singular, as President Obama does with frequency.

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