You’ve got to sympathize with people who set out to learn English.
The well documented pitfalls of our mother tongue can be summed up by this waggish, head-spinning advice to those who try: “English is difficult. It can be understood though through tough thorough thought.”
And how to explain to an English-language newcomer that a house burning down is also burning up? Or that “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?
It might also stump a novice to learn there’s grammatical logic in the sentence, “All the faith he had had had had no effect on his life.”
So what’s the point?
April just happens to be National English Month, with the 23rd annually set by the United Nations as “U.N. English Day.”
There’s no favoritism there – the organization has six official languages, and the other five – Chinese, Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish – all have their own observances. One might say every dialect has its day.
As for the 23rd, it was chosen because it’s the date the world celebrates the birth of English-language icon William Shakespeare. The exact day he arrived in April of 1564 isn’t known, but he gave us another reason to remember the 23rd, because he also died on that day, in April of 1616.
You might think of Shakespeare as highbrow, but many of the expressions we use every day come directly from his plays, including “vanish into thin air,” “break the ice,” “wild goose chase,” and “short shrift.”
According to the National Day Calendar, which tracks all kinds of annual observances, the month-long April paean to English encourages the learning of “this global and constantly evolving language.”
Encouragement is essential for English neophytes. Some of the reasons for their inevitable puzzlement were once captured by an anonymous poet who complained:
We’ll begin with box, the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox is oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, and two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose is never called meese…
It’s no wonder that Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek, an Oscar nominee in 2003, once told Oprah Winfrey, “I came here and realized how truly limited my English was and it was very scary. I soon realized it wasn’t going to be hard to learn – it was going to be nearly impossible.”
It’s no wonder that Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek, an Oscar nominee in 2003, once told Oprah Winfrey;
Fictional Jewish immigrant Hyman Kaplan had similar trouble in a hilarious 1937 novel by Leonard Q. Ross, who under his real name, Leo Rosten, later wrote a language classic, “The Joys of Yiddish.” Kaplan’s struggle with English was intensified by an ethnic background that led him to think the plural of “sandwich” was “delicatessen.”
At any rate, English Month is here to help us appreciate our native tongue, which itself draws on many others as it grows and changes.
Its value was put succinctly in Broadway’s “My Fair Lady,” itself adapted from a play by English language master George Bernard Shaw.
In the musical, when London flower girl Eliza Doolittle tells Prof. Henry Higgins he’s too demanding as he instructs her in proper English, he replies: “I know your head aches. I know you’re tired. I know your nerves are as raw as meat in a butcher’s window. But think what you’re trying to accomplish – just think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language; it’s the greatest possession we have.”
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.
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