Thursday, December 25, 2014

Terrible Mistakes and Bad Manners in American English

After criticizing the German language harshly—mainly the k-spelling of old Latin and French loanwords, spelled with c—I have to be just and also name some bad habits in American English. I do not know whether these mistakes are also common in British English.

Latin loanwords, like media, bacteria, data etc.¹ are plural forms. The singular forms are: medium, bacterium, datum—or you say just "date", which is also correct. It is very common to say, "Radio is a media." Media is the Latin plural of the neuter medium! However common it is, you out yourself as ignorant, if you make that mistake. Your message then is, "I'm one of those ignorant American grammar hillbillies who neither know, nor care."

Correct is: A newspaper is a medium—papers, radio, TV, internet are media. A bacterium causes an infection—the cause of the infection are bacteria. Normally we use data in plural form: These data are very interesting (you cannot say "This data is" for data is the Latin plural!). Of course you can say like, "This datum of those data is interesting"—datum is very uncommon in English, but not wrong. Why don't you just say: this fact, or this point. However, "this data" is false.

What I also never do is saying "this news" since the final s looks like an English plural and I really think it is a plural. In the dictionary of my brain is only "these news".

Now we get to the global standard of courtesy in universal English: I am, but you are. In case I was (correct!) you, I'd be polite to myself and say "I were" to myself, but I'm not a hillbilly. The sentence "If I were you..." is very common in American English, but nonsense. Though, it cannot be denied, even moderately intelligent Americans use this terrible "subjunctive mood". In modern English grammar the subjunctive doesn't exist—it never made sense and should die out. Really smart Americans say, "If I was you..." Which is the proper standard in global, universal English:
  • I am
  • you are
  • if I was
  • if you were
"Were" is the polite if-clause and only a hillbilly is being polite to himself! I am polite to you and not to myself. Just insist on your kind of America being exceptionally ignorant in this matter and go.

Finally, the word "pathetic", which is the verb of the old Greek rhetorical PATHOS. Pathos is an actual art and nothing ridiculous or pitiful. Are you guessing what I am driving at? It is not to deny, that pathos is often considered obsolete today, although rhetorical masters like Martin Luther King where really great at it. His "I had a dream" speech was really great pathos. True, great pathos also was Hillary Clinton quoting the abolitionist Harriet Tubman in her DNC-speech, after admitting, Barack Obama had won the nomination to run as president:
"If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going."
Let me finally ad, African Americans are still masters in the ancient art of pathos and here it's rarely embarrassing, whereas if 'Caucasians' (also misleading word!)² try to be pathetic, it's often like "America is the greatest country in the world" and actually very-very embarrassing.

I know, if we pity a person in an ironic way, we use "pathetic" as allegory and this is not wrong. But this allegory is being overused and hardly anybody seems to know, it's actually an allegory and what "pathetic" really means. Martin Luther King was a very pathetic orator, which is the art of heartfelt, powerful speech, without overdoing it and being kitschy or boastful. Black soul music is also full of pathos—often powerfully heartfelt expressions about having lost one's heart. Whereas we know 'Caucasian' (crypto-Nazi language?)² love songs as too often heartfelt in a kitschy way.
Demoiselle Amelise
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¹ More Latin neuters within the English language are: millennium/millennia, saeculum/saecula (means century/centuries), speculum/specula, etc. ....
² The expression "Caucasian" is actually misleading if not meaning people from Caucasus. This comes from a concept of race, in German called "Rassentheorie", which resulted in National Socialism. In Germany the abusive form of "Caucasian" is obsolete.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reforming the Reform of the Reformed Duden

Did you know, Konrad Duden's birth name actually was Conrad? Years ago this made me very suspicious, because this famous German spelling reformer seemed to have ruined the Latin heritage within the German language. So who was this guy? Had he been one of those early pre-Nationalsocialists who later formed the Nazi party? Had Duden been an activist within the völkisch movement? Was he one of those "alldeutsche" radicals who hated all French, Latin, or how they tended to generalize: "welsche" loanwords? Did 'Conradius' change his name to Konrad just because he was sort of neo-Teuton—still at war with the Roman empire? I was dying to find out the truth, so I studied the sources.

Fact is, Latin loanwords, in today's Duden spelled with k, were c-words before the Duden changed the official German spelling. At that point Germany seems to have divided herself from the western world. But was it really Konrad Duden's fault? I have to admit, that I didn't like that man when I started to consult sources, but when I was done, I really loved him. Not, that I shared all his opinions about reforming the German language of his time. But he was not a radical. On the contrary, his argumentation was fairly well-balanced, questioning inconsistency in the spelling of his time in the 1870s: Why spell "Vokal", but on the other hand "Consonant"? His suggestion was not, French and Latin words should all be changed to k-spelling. What he wanted was consistency—either with c or with k. But after all he preferred the k-spelling and at this point I disagree with him. Germany was on an ego trip, heading into the great world wars—and so was their orthography. To hell with the Latin and French heritage, we share with our European sister peoples—"Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!" Konrad Duden didn't try to prevent this, but the last thing he did was to advocate the common right-wing radicalism of the pre-Nazi decades. No, Duden was a fairly modest guy and not at all a loudmouthed nationalist. To me he sounds like he absolutely respected the Romance heritage and their countries of origin. And what later became the official "Duden", was not necessarily all the work of Konrad Duden. He was the moderate who had to negotiate with the German radicalism of his time and the result was the official "Duden".

In the meantime this reform work has been re-reformed several times. And whenever the German government dares to reform the reformed reform, many Germans protest, like the "Duden" had been essentially German for centuries. In fact, the German language, before the Duden became official German dictionary, had made more sense. Generally, I tend to define it the German language before 1850, because the spelling had started to change long before Duden's dictionary was released. People had already begun to prefer k-spelling, although the original c had been standard for many centuries. It was sort of lingual iconoclast of a beginning German nation, which people had been threatened by French invasions since the middle-ages. After having defeated the Sun King and finally Napoleon (together with their English and Dutch allies!) the Germans seemed to have decided to become difficult, naughty and destructive themselves. And before the destruction of two World Wars, they destroyed their own language.

The fallacy behind the first Duden reform, around the year 1900, was the excess of consistency. In English there's no such perfection of consistency, but lots of variation. And variation is just as important as consistency. Too much consistency is a compulsive idea. And still, after several times re-reforming the Duden, the German language isn't really consistent. The modern German language is ruined, that's all. Although most people tend to consider God-given what they once had learned in school, some Germans will understand, that it wasn't a good idea to obscure the spelling of French and Latin loanwords. Maybe students are happy as long as they learn nothing but their native language. But if they go on with French, English and Latin, the disruption will show and it will be more difficult. Bitching about the reform of a spelling you've learned in school is selfish. If you know the history of the German language, and are honest, you will generally question the Duden as it became official spelling around 1900. The stupid student in 1750 spelled "marchieren" instead of "marchiren", because "manieren" was spelled with ie as well. "Manier" is the correct French loanword indeed, but "-iren" is the German form of the old French ending "-ir". The correct spellings were "marchiren" and "manieren". Today this German lection of grammar is dumbed down to "marschieren", so you can't see that the ending once came from France. These things should always remain obvious in any language, because we have to consider the broader sense of European languages all together. What happened instead, was oversimplification. You find these tendencies in pretty much all languages, but the Germans around the year 1900 brought this to the boil of perversion. This had quite some unpleasant consequences.....

Maybe, you've heard, that the German language isn't really ideal for singing. The famous Caruso sang Italian, French, Spanish, English, Russian and probably more languages—but he refused to sing German, because he feared for his voice. Long before Caruso, the German language had had way more variation, and with it many options to involve vowels you could use or drop. You were free so say either "kommt alle" or "kommet all(e)". Or how about this: "Die Bauren tanzeten"—in modern German: "Die Bauern tanzten." Try to sing this modern clustering of consonants: "Die-Baue-rnta-ntzte-n." That's how opera singers manage to sing German. The oppressiveness of consonants is being condensed and articulated as fast as possible, so the few vowels can somewhat ring out. It works, but it will always be unsatisfying, until the Germans go back to their roots of considering more than just one spelling correct.
Demoiselle Amelise