Babel Revisited

The Old Testament story (Genesis 11: 1-9) recounts a myth about why there are so many languages out there. This is not my long suit by any means (although chemistry does have languages). As a consequence of our history and geography, we Americans are much less conversant, as it were, of languages other than American English (a form of the language which is different from the British version). We do make feeble attempts to educate ourselves, largely through foreign language requirements in schools and colleges. Most of us don’t need to know any other languages, since American English is, by far, the most important to be fluent in, due to our economic superpower status. We kind of force others to learn it, because we can.

I was born into an immigrant family (French) in Queens , NY. My parents, although fluent in English, spoke French in the house. When I came along, the language I heard (and subsequently learned) was French. In 1944, I started kindergarten. Shortly afterward, my mother went to Open School Night, and was confronted by the teacher, who suggested that my speaking German was inadvisable, since we were at war with Germany! This is illustrative of our collective tin ear for languages. To this day, I can’t imagine anyone confusing spoken French for spoken German. My parents took the hint, and began speaking English in the home. I quickly learned English, and pretty much forgot French.

Both in high school and college, I took the easy way out and selected French as my foreign language. To this day, I have never regained fluency, although I can read aloud from a prepared text and sound almost like a native speaker. One of my many functions as a forensic chemist at DEA was to translate “french connection” recipes for making heroin into English. I can also write English-to-French translation (with the heavy aid of a dictionary). What I cannot do, however, is watch a French movie without subtitles and follow what is going on.

George Bernard Shaw put it best: The United States and Britain are two nations separated by a common language. If you listen to a debate in Parliament, and then a speech or two in Congress, you get the idea.

As I struggled with French, it often vexed me with verbs. There are three major conjugations: those with the infinitive ending in -er, -ir and (I forget the other one- I think it’s -re). These account for, maybe, a third of verbs. Then there are the exceptions……..Then again, I have learned the difficulties with English as a second language. We often mock people new to this country who just don’t seem to get it. But when you stop to think about it, American English is loaded with traps. A few of them:

-two, too, to. Shouldn’t the first one be pronounced ”twoo”?

capital, capitol – Pronounced the same, but vastly different meanings

the suffix “ough”: Cough, though, tough, through, rough

the word “close” – in near proximity, or to unopen a door or window?

Different pronunciations (one, a verb,the other, an ajective)

“invalid” – A disabled individual, or a prohibited action, or interpretation. Again. different pronunciations

I could go on, but you get the idea. Learning English is not that easy. Back in the day, we made no allowances for immigrants. However, soon we might be linguistic immigrants in our own country. After all, we will be a majority Spanish speaking nation pretty soon, according to recently released 2020 census data.

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