Saturday, May 28, 2005

Grammar as a Secret Handshake

I was just indulging a little daydream, in which I came out with this little bit of soliloquy:

No one would be more surprised than I, unless it were he!
(No, I won't give you the whole context, but the daydream was rapidly moving past a PG rating.)

For those of you who know the basics of English grammar, my sentence there is grammatically correct, but idiomatically it is dysphonious. In other words, you done said it right by the school books, but it shore sounds wrong.

The thing is, the grammatical rule I so carefully obeyed, is itself entirely arbitrary. In French, the official rule happens to align with what sounds natural to the ear. For example, les fran├žais parlent leur langue mieux que moi. In English, the French speak their language better than I. The awkward "better than I" becomes the naturally flowing "mieux que moi." The French are so picky about their language, they have an official commission to guard its purity, but on this point, we have to out-anal-retentive even the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys.

The origins of English grammar as we hate know it were a bunch of pervo monks who tried to mash a Germanic language into Latinate grammar. (Actually, I enjoy grammar, but I also love playing with the raw HTML on my blog, and my other obsession is telephone area codes.) If we can allow "common usage" to bully us into accepting such linguistic blasphemies as "alright" (that's "all right," all right?) and the adverb "everyday" (Every day, we must guard against the everyday use of the adverb "everyday."), then why can't we bow to the fact that it sounds far more natural to say "you're smarter than me"? (Why, yes, of course it's an elision of "You are smarter than I am smart.")

There is only one reason for it: to allow those "in the know" to spot one another. ("To spot each other" suggests only two people.) It's really nothing more than a secret handshake to be allowed into the "Hey, I've got a good edumacation" treehouse.

I'm a downright grammar freak. One friend of mine finally asked me to stop correcting his grammar. I had already agreed not to say anything out loud, but he could see in my eyes that I was mentally dubbing over him with the grammatically sanitized version of what he was saying. So if I make a stupid grammar error here, other than merely bowing to common sense and common usage, feel free to smack me upside the head. However, I ask that you make your primary judgment based on what I have to say, not on my impeccable grammar.

The link I gave for the word "enjoy" above bears further highlighting. It's a book that was a #1 bestseller in Britain, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Here's a little sample:
“Of course I punctuate my text messages, I did A-level English,” one young man explained, with a look of scorn. Evidently an A level in English is a sacred trust, like something out of The Lord of the Rings. You must go forth with your A level and protect the English language with your bow of elfin gold.
I might quibble that it should be a semi-colon rather than a comma in the first sentence, but there are some differences between American and the British dialect of American (It's our language now! Pbbbbt!), as I learned when I lived in the "Mahble Ahch" section of London's West End. (By the way, an "A-level" is a "N.E.W.T." in Harry Potter's world.) Here's a tip to Brits in dealing with North Americans. To us, the difference in accent between Vancouver, Canada, and Seattle, U.S.A., is about as subtle as between Glasgow and Bethnal Green & Bow. However, I was often asked "Oh, are you American or Canadian?" as in:
Are you:
a. American or Canadian
b. English
c. Scottish
d. Norwegian/Swiss/Welsh[*]
I told my British friends that the correct question is "Are you Canadian?" If the person is an American, she will probably just chuckle and say something like, "No, I'm from Atlanta." On the other hand, if you've just met an actual Canuck, she will be so overjoyed that you didn't assume she's American that you will have a new friend.

Oh, but don't worry, fellow estadounidenses: that was in 1993, and America's respect in the eyes of the world has improved so much since then.

[*] Gofynnwch I'r Ceidwad am Docynnau Tymor.