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The Mother Tongue

March 1, 2016

Volume XI, Issue One | March 2016

I love the nuances of English.  That’s probably one reason I became a writer.  I was fortunate to have three superb English teachers who taught not only proper usage and diagramming but the quirks of English as well.  Among the things I learned:

 

  • The difference between further and farther.  They are not interchangeable.  Farther is measurable distance. Further is something you can’t measure in inches or miles. Example:  You are further along in your studies than I, but I live farther from the school.
     

  • Me not I is the object of a preposition.  How many times do you hear someone say, “Give it to Bill and I?”  Take out “Bill” and you have “Give it to I.”  People seem to think that me is ungrammatical.
     

  • Turn sentences around to find the right verb.  This is one of my favorites.  Which is correct? He is one of those who are going, or He is one of those who is going.  Most people pick the second, reasoning “he…is…going.”  Wrong.  It’s the first, and that’s clear if you reverse the order of the sentence so that it reads Of those who are going, he is one.

 

All this came to mind recently when I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue.  It is a history of English and proper—if sometimes absurd—usage, with nifty little tidbits thrown in.

 

A woman at a book signing once told me that someone in her book club listed all the made-up words I had used in a novel.  The reader did so in a sort of tsk-tsk manner, and the woman who brought the list and I laughed about it.  Well, I read in The Mother Tongue that Shakespeare used 17,677 words in his writings, and 10 pct. were made up. They include leapfrog, obscene, countless, gloomy and summit.  Oh, and excellent. (Barky and brisky fell by the wayside.) So I’m just following in his footsteps.

 

Another cool little fact is that Davy Crockett made up the word blizzard.

 

English, Bryson writes, contains more sounds than almost any other language. And the sounds of pronunciations often are different from what we think we’re saying.  Ladies comes out as laties, handbag as hambag, and something as sompthing

 

Regionalisms still exist, although they’re disappearing.  We drink pop in Colorado.  Elsewhere, people drink sodas.  Northerners frost their cakes, Southerners ice them.  Groceries go into a bag in the East, a poke in the South, and everyone else uses a sack. In Salt Lake City, where I went to high school, ignorant (pronounced ig-nert) was interchangeable with mean.  I remember hearing a girl say, “He was so ig-nert to me.”

 

Bryson says there’s no reason for many uses.  We’ve all been taught not to end a sentence with a proposition.  Why?  Who knows?  You can ignore that one, he suggests.  It brings to mind the rejoinder Winston Churchill gave a woman who admonished him for doing just that.  He replied, “Madam, that is nonsense up with which I will not put.”

 

Of course, English doesn’t always translate well into other languages.  In one American movie translated into Italian, a cop tells a motorist to pull over.  In the translation, Pull over becomes sweater.  And a man who asks to bring a date to a funeral, instead asks permission to bring a fig.

 

Of course, I learned plenty of things I’ve gotten wrong all these years.  I always wrote “Betty’s and Bill’s house.”  Bryson says just go with Betty and Bill’s house—no possessive for Betty.” 

 

There are others I’ve been wrong about, too, but I won’t tell you.   I’m sure, however, that  the reader with the list will be happy to do so. –SD

Sandra’s Picks

 

Georgia

By Dawn Tripp.  Random House.

 

It must be awful to be famous and have someone write a novel about you after your death that fantasizes about your sex life.  Georgia, which is a novel about the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, follows in the footsteps of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank.  And it’s really very good.  I had breakfast with O’Keeffe once, when I was writing a travel article on Abiquiu, N.M., for the New York Times.  She was terribly nice, and it’s a little hard to reconcile the elderly woman with the young, highly sexual young artist in Georgia.  Still, the novel rings true.  And of course, it’s not just about sex. That’s only a small part of it.  The story is really about a talented woman trying to find success as an artist—and not as a female artist. 

 

O’Keeffe’s talent was recognized by the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who mentored so many contemporary artists at his gallery in New York.  He encouraged O’Keeffe to move to New York during World War I, and the two immediately began an affair that encompassed both their bodies and their minds.  They eventually married.  Part of O’Keeffe’s struggle was against her husband’s dictates.  There is no question that as her manager, Stieglitz made O’Keeffe an important and highly successful artist.  But she struggled for her own identity, which she eventually found in Abiquiu.

 

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Edited by William Anderson.  Harper.

 

Growing up, I loved the Little House books, and I bet you did, too. That’s why I was delighted to read some 400 of the thousands of letters Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote as an adult.  They show that she never lost her upbeat outlook or sense of adventure.  The bulk of the letters included here were written to Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a successful writer who encouraged her mother to write her childhood experiences.  The books were a collaboration between the two.  Laura admits in the letters that a few scenes were made up and that some characters were compilations.  Most interesting was her description of her writing:

 

“I do my writing in a little room in a corner between my bedroom …and the living room.  It is a very small room with a window to the west and one to the south, looking out into the big trees around the house.  The room is filled with my desk and a table, couch and small bookcase.  It is usually a mess with papers and books and mss. scattered around.

 

“I write whenever I can snatch the time from housework, telephone, callers, Mr. Wilder and Ben, the bulldog…I do all my own work, in the old-fashioned way mostly.  And the house has ten rooms.

“The way I work is a mixture of remembering, inspiration and just plain plugging.

 

“While I am working at housework I study about whatever I am writing.  Sometimes I can‘t sleep for trying to place the right word in the right place and again I will wake with a perfectly turned phrase in my mind, to be remembered and written down next day…”–SD

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