The Little French English Improvement Project

little french person trying to improve her english, little french english person trying to improve herself, french english person trying to improve a little bit… and blogging along the way. (Now in Deutschland)

Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

Oooh look! Grammar…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on January 20, 2011

Like oh-so-many people, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship thing going on with grammar, and german grammar in particular. I mentioned a few days ago that Mark Twain called it the “awful language”, partly because of its strange and mind-boggling syntax. I still haven’t read the rest of his essay, but I like to imagine it like a metaphorical summary execution, each rule being dragged out of the dark recesses of a grammar book, into the light, exposed to everyone’s view and shot down. Aaaah, if only someone could do that with Russian genitives…

looking for the local tribes in the German library

But I’m missing the point really, because although I could kill a prepositional verb right now, as well as the person who turned up with the idea of declensions, in fact I really love grammar. I love observing it, and as with most things pertaining to language, I think it’s a wonderful invention. I personally am definitely not a grammarian: I don’t like putting labels on things and saying : “This is the way this should be” or “that should happen in such and such a way because that’s the way it is and otherwise it would be wrong”, just in the same way that I hate it when people put their pre-conceived set ideas on my and label me as “nice”, “boring”, “french”… Some people go through languages with a magnifying glass, a butterfly net and a pair of tweezers, ready to catch a grammar rule, pin it down onto a page and pull it apart under the microscope. I’m much more of an explorer: I travel through the world of languages with my backpack and a safari hat, taking a few notes, and trying to get used to the strange customs of the native compound-adjective tribes. And the populations of these heathen lands are both fierce and shy. I had to circle around the declension village about ten times before I could even get close, and even today some of the little guys won’t come out of their hiding place.

I honestly do get a little thrill of joy when I find out something in the way a language works which cries out loud: I am somehow related to such and such another language. I get pangs of recognition, sometimes, in Russian or German, and I go: but that’s just how it works in English, or I wonder if that’s related to the way they say that in spanish… I get all flustered and most people think I’m crazy, but I just love it. In fact, I’ve long since figured out that’s the only way to understand a language.  By observing it in situ. All those guys with their butterfly nets and their glass boxes haven’t understood a thing, and this is probably why there are so many display cases hopelessly labelled: Exceptions

So basically I love grammar, I just don’t like studying it. Am I a linguist then or am I not?

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Mark Twain and truancy in the German department…?

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on January 17, 2011

Well today was the first of a shiny new semester, after two long weeks of exams, and what an impressive kickstart it was! For starters, there were only two lessons all day, adding up to a total of three and a half hours. Some cynics will say that’s because linguists have an easy life, and maybe that’s true: this semester I have four-day-long weekends (but just wait until wednesdays, when I have 7½ hours lessons with a just a 30min lunch break to run and find something to eat, closely followed by three hours training).

That not being my point however, I move swiftly on to discuss a serious attendance issue in my class. Indeed for the first lesson (translation), half the class was missing, then for linguistics, two thirds of the students simply didn’t turn up! So basically not only are we a bunch of lazy sloths, but we also have a serious truancy problem! And yet, you’d think it would be easy getting all three and a half of us together!

Yes, you heard me right: our university is strong of three, sometimes four final year german bachelor students. Obviously taking a literary, linguistic and cultural approach to German is not a very popular choice. There are way more lecturers in the department than there are students and -you may have guessed/calculated it by now- sometimes you end up getting private tuition. A bit of quick maths will tell you I spent two hours today faccing our linguistic teacher alone, while she grilled me. For example, please analyse this sentence:

Olaf steckt die Flöte in die Hosentasche und geht rülpsend und grinsend an der Jette vorbei, hinter der Mutter her, schön an der Hand.

I hope you’re not actually expecting me to analyse this for you now, I just did it in French; no way I’m going through this again especially since I have no idea how stuff like anaphore, ellision, le plan morphosyntaxique translates into English! Have fun analysing this yourselves!

I also learned today that Mark Twain knew German, and that he hated it! I had no idea! Here is something he wrote about parenthesis in a text about “the awful German language” as he calls it:

The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:

“The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED.”

However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it.

And it’s so true…

Anyway, I need to go shopping if I want food when I return from training tonight! TTYL

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