• A tough row to hoe
    October 06,2012
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    The English language has become a sort of lingua franca for a good share of the world, and that is odd because it is rather an amalgamation of language in itself. Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic-based language, brought by people who were largely from the coasts of what is now Germany and the northern Netherlands. But over the centuries there was a large admixture of French, chiefly Norman French, and the Normans themselves descended from invaders speaking Scandinavian Germanic tongues. Through the later French came the influence of Latin and Greek.

    When a king is crowned, we now term it a “coronation,” a word derived from Latin. The Anglo-Saxons called the procedure a “kinging,” which is the creation of a verb from the noun itself. There are passages in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle that tell about a specific person going to a specific place “for his kinging.” Our name for the rhinoceros is a derivation from the Latin and Greek. The German name for that same animal is much more direct — “nose-horn.” That’s just what our word means, but it’s hidden behind the foreign derivation to the extent that many people might not realize its real meaning.

    Because of its Anglo-Saxon derivation English has many words whose pronunciation is different from the way they are spelled. “Night,” for instance, no longer gives voice to the “gh” sound. The German word “nocht” does give a sound to the “ch.”

    Efforts have been made sometimes to simplify the spelling of English words. The Chicago Tribune newspaper made a stab at such a thing so that the period of darkness became “nite.” That was fine until it came time to talk about the men around King Arthur’s Round Table. “Knight” in English is pronounced the same as the period of darkness, but the modifiers weren’t sure if “nites of the Round Table” would be more confusing than clarifying. The Tribune finally decided that the paper didn’t often need to talk about the Round Table people, so left their title stand as before.

    The “gh” echo is obliterated in the pronunciation of several English words, but not always in the same way. “Through” and “ought” do away with the sound completely, but it is given a different sound in “rough,” “tough” and “enough.”

    “Flight” and “right” throttle the “gh” completely, which brings to mind that you fly a plane when that trip is done you “flew.” But you fry an egg and when that process is finished, the egg is fried — not “frew” or “frown.”

    Actually, when the word “fly” is partly a noun, as in “fly ball” in baseball, you do treat its past tense in the manner of “fry.” You say the batter “flied out to center field.” A listener would get a completely different picture if you said “he flew out to center field.”

    All languages that cover any sizable territory develop different accents for the different regions. In “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas, one of the musketeers, Athos, makes fun of D’Artagnan’s Gascon accent. The German of Bavaria in the south of Germany is different from the same tongue on the Baltic coast of the north. The German world for “I” in Bavaria is pronounced “ish.” A Bavarian girl once joked to me about how Germans from Prussia pronounced that word. “They say, ‘ik,’ and doesn’t that sound funny?” she said.

    In this country we in New England are familiar with the Boston area pronunciation, when you pahk a cah. I call Boston the center of the “land of the throttled ‘r’.”

    When Jimmy Carter became president, his press secretary was named Jordan. But Carter insisted that it be pronounced the Georgia way, which is “Jerdan.”

    I know a person who grew up in Alabama, but who has lived for years in the North, especially in Vermont. Yet to my ear his language still has a definite trace of Dixie. But he says when he goes south to visit, his family tells him he sounds like a Yankee.

    A person from the Netherlands once tole me, jokingly, that the Dutch language was invented by a drunken German who was trying to talk English. While it is true that the emphasis on certain parts of words is different, you can see there are similarities that show that English and Dutch have many of the same roots.

    In English the bough of a tree is pronounced the same as the bow of a boat, but that bow is not pronounced like the bow that shoots an arrow. So generally speaking, our language, though, is tough enough to get through.

    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
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