“Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!”*

The English language was created by poets, a five-hundred year enterprise of emotion and metaphor, the richest dialogue in world literature.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

I read Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia when it came out. I found it oddly accurate and very disturbing, but the ONLY words I remember are those quoted above. Somehow they made my heart sing.

In spite of its reputation for being the most difficult language to learn (perpetrated largely by native speakers who had sadistic English teachers) English is as close to a universal language as we we’re likely to see. Compared to Romance languages, the use of verbs in English is very simple and straight-forward with far fewer conjugations than, say, French or Spanish or or or. The only language I’ve studied that has easier grammar is Mandarin, but that’s, you know, a little difficult to learn to write. 不容易学写

Some languages — Greek, Latin, German and other languages — also change the forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives by which its grammatical case, number, and gender are specified. “Case” is something we English speakers don’t need to know much (or anything) about. I had to learn it when I studied Homeric Greek, and I had to dredge up this knowledge when I was studying German.

“There are five Cases, the right [nominative], the generic [genitive], the dative, the accusative, and the vocative. Latin grammars, such as Ars grammatica, followed the Greek tradition, but added the ablative case of Latin. Later other European languages also followed that Graeco-Roman tradition.”

What this means is that besides learning the changes in verbs from person (first, second, third and plurals) and past, present, future, past perfect, present perfect, future perfect, subjunctive (HELP ME!!!) people had to learn changes for all the other words in their sentences. THAT is a bitch. The ONLY advantage to this system is you can write words in a sentence any way you want to. Grow a language up you using biggy is no you for such it’s if.

English appropriates what it wants or needs from every language with which it comes in contact. This is one reason English spelling can be challenging. What we have today is the glorious result of thousands of years of welcoming new words.

English grammar also evolved and simplified through the centuries, because, dammit! People had something to say!

My paint box resembles English. For a while I was only using paints made by Gamblin. Then I got the sacred tube of Ultramarine made of Lapis Lazuli made by Daniel Smith. Then, last year, I got the Natural Pigments. To them I added some paints made from water pollution. All these together make a great palette, far more expressive than any I’ve used before.

“Head in the clouds” is a powerful, beautiful way to say “nefelibata.” It’s one thing to walk on the clouds. It’s quite another to walk along with your head in the clouds, missing the rocks, roots and snakes on the trail. Falling on your face — or worse.

P.S. I’m not one of those English only fascists. I speak more than one language. I think everyone should.

P.P.S. The featured photo is the opening of a Portugese (Brazilian Portugese) translation of Macbeth given me years ago by a student who loved Shakespeare and who had come to the US to learn English so she could read and listen to it in its original language. Because of her, we did, in our oral communication class, Hamlet as a two-week-long role play.

* “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” Beowulf


22 thoughts on ““Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!”*

  1. I loved your analogy of the English language to the paints. From living and teaching in some First Nations communities I’ve learned a little of some First Nations languages and I’ve come to use some of the words as English substitutes..just because they sound better!

    • My mom taught on the Crow reservation in Montana. Some of the first words I knew as a kid were Crow — they meant “Don’t do that!” and “Come here NOW!” I don’t think it was my mom’s intention, but it opened a window for me to a world of languages that weren’t English. “A-aa-jee-sa!” (don’t do that) “hoo-ku-wah-HUH!” (come here now).

  2. Perhaps I missed out by only taking 3 years of Spanish in high school. So I know how to ask where the bathroom is in Spanish. Hello. Goodbye. That’s about it.
    Fascinating post, Martha. Great song choice for the RDP too 🙂

    • IMO, languages are taught wrong in schools. It seems like few people emerge from 3 years (and that’s a long time!!!) of high school languages able to speak the language. I think that’s really a shame. I didn’t realize I could actually SPEAK Spanish until I was in grad school and had to take the proficiency test for my MA. I prepared by reading the short stories of Carlos Fuentes and it was then I realized I could actually UNDERSTAND stuff in Spanish. 🙂

  3. Oh, love that Anglo-Saxon!
    And Germanic Ich liebe dich!
    Or Te amo…
    I’ll never forget what’s important in English “grammar”: knowing you’re shit and knowing your shit.
    I’ll have dreams tonight, now, and probably tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
    Here’s Grendel!

    • Beautiful explanation of English grammar there… The true spirit of contractions… ❤ Beowulf I loved reading it and loved teaching it.

  4. As a non-native speaker I agree. English is easy. Mandarin even easier. As a non-native writer/reader, Sanskrit based alphabetic systems are the easiest. Mandarin is way too hard. English can be middling hard; too many special cases.

    • It’s true that English has a lot of exceptions, I think they mostly came about because it’s such a linguistic slut. Mandarin is really difficult conceptually for anyone who grew up with an alphabet based language. I really liked studying Chinese, though. I never tried to learn Sanskrit. Maybe that’s what I should be doing in these strange times.

      • Since it is a long dead language, the modern alphabet and grammar (from the 7th century) is absolutely regular. Since you already know about cases and conjugation from another German, I guess you might be able to pick up Sanskrit in a few months. I find that remembering a vocabulary and the conjugations for a new language now takes me longer and longer though.

        • I’ll probably just keep practicing German in the hopes that someday all of us will be traveling again and I will make that longed-for pilgrimage to Goetheland via Zürich. ❤

  5. I took 3 years of Latin in HS and although I can translate it and can pronounce most of what I read – no one really speaks it anymore (save Church Latin which isn’t the same)! 4 semesters of college Russian and I can’t really understand it. I can however state that I’m an idiot and Thank God it’s Friday!
    P.S I could tell the text was Shakespeare. But that was the extent.
    P.P.S. I wish other languages were as easy as English. I’d have more success in learning them!

  6. Thank god, I finally found you. People are dropping off my feed at an alarming rate and until I can find a post youve made, you are lost. This was interesting. It’s like being back in school, but shorter, loved that! lol

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