The Funny Thing About Language

Here is a question for you – if someone left you a note saying “the key is on the plank” would you include all possible planks of wood in your search for the aforementioned key? Or would you assume you were looking for a loose plank (which may or may not be propped against a wall)?

That was the situation which my English Grandparents faced when they found the above note written by my Mum. After searching the building they were in my Grandparents did indeed find the key where Mum had left it. Minor problem was – my Mum had used the Dutch definition of “plank” (and her in-laws couldn’t speak a word of the language). If they could understand Dutch their search would have been a lot shorter as they would have looked on the “shelf” where Mum had put the key.

Growing up hearing two languages spoken (sometimes in the same sentence) was an interesting experience. There are some words in Dutch which sound like English ones but (like the “plank” versus “shelf” above) mean something totally different.

For example – my favourite word for a settee or sofa is the Dutch “bank”.

What sparked this train of thought off was reading a book on English Grammar written by Professor David Crystal.

Professor Crystal pointed out that the rules of English Grammar have to change as the usage of the language evolves (even though I am a native English speaker there are some things I find odd about it – the lack of distinction between the “formal” and the “informal” you, for example).

There is one “rule” in English which has never made sense to me – it is the “I before E except after C” one. My brain has been hardwired into thinking that the placement of the I and the E change the pronunciation completely. A good example of what I mean is the difference in pronunciation between “piece” and “Einstein” – nobody would pronounce those two the same. (I have an interesting way of remembering how to spell “experience” – tweak the pronunciation to how it appears to my brain. This means that – instead of saying “experience” – whenever I want to spell it – I say (usually in my head) “exper-ie-nce” so the “ie” sound matches “piece”.

My Dad and I still sometimes speak to each other in a mix of Dutch and English.

It would have been my Mum’s 75th birthday today. She is the one responsible for my love of language and playing with words.

My favourite times (when it came to listening to her speak) was when our English-speaking friends got unexpected Dutch lessons as part of a conversation – usually because Mum had forgotten the English word for something, used the Dutch word, and carried on in English. The poor human she was speaking to would then get a description (in English) of whatever English word Mum had forgotten. (What they didn’t realise was they could be thankful she actually described it to them. Me??? I had to guess what she meant. If my ears picked up what sounded like “board” and Mum and I were either standing in the kitchen or discussing food, for example, my mental phrasebook would flag up that she meant a plate.)

There was one word she never used the English definition of in my earshot (she never used it when she was speaking to me anyway). My ears picking up “mess” would not be translated as “untidy” – they would send me towards the nearest knife (mes being knife in Dutch). She had enough Dutch words to describe a mess without needing to add any English ones.

Language evolves according to how we use it, we just have to make sure everyone can easily understand what we mean.

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