Sunday 25 Sep 2016

Everybody Do it Wrong
Sjef Frenken

Neither Jack nor I were to the English language born. Jack, the anglicized version of his real name -- Jacques -- grew up speaking French. His parents, Catholic, sent him to a Protestant Sunday School in rural Quebec, to learn English. In time he learned to speak it as well as he does French. He is one of the few people I know who are not only fully bilingual, but also bi-cultural.

I didn't really learn English until I came to Canada at the age of 16. Since my French leaves a lot to be desired, and Jack's knowledge of Dutch is negligible, we converse perforce in English. (I think Jack knows a few Dutch words and expressions he picked up in one of the less savoury areas of Amsterdam on a visit long ago).

Despite all the years we've used English, it is, in a sense, still a bit foreign to our ears. Which is why we often notice things in English that don't particularly jar native English-speakers. I guess it is as a result of a subconscious parallel comparison with another language that these irritants tend to show up and stick in our craw.

Because we are both sensitive to these linguistic bumps-in-the-road, we spend a good many lunches discussing the vagaries of English.

A case in point.

"You know," said Jack, "after all these years I still can't get used to the 'everyone-they' thing."

I said "please elaborate," even though Jack doesn't need any encouragement to expound on his favourite topics.

Jack said: "You know, people saying things like 'everybody has their own way of doing things.' 'Everybody has' is singular; 'their own way' is plural. The two don't agree. It's an offence against good grammar. Look how dumb it sounds if you ask for confirmation: "Everybody has, has they?"

I said "Jack, you're one hundred percent right. I know from my own children that teachers tell their grade school pupils not to make that mistake, but then the teachers go right on doing it themselves. I've heard them do so at parent-teacher meetings."

Jack said: "Why can't people get it straight?"

I said "Maybe another case of linguistic entropy. Not even all that long ago people used to say 'Everybody goes his own way.' But you can't say that anymore -- politically incorrect: you're using sexist language. So you either have to say 'everybody goes his or her own way' (which is a little cumbersome) or 'people go their own way.' But the public has done its own thing, regardless of the rules of grammar. So now it is 'everybody goes their own way.' What still hasn't been decided in common parlance is how to handle this situation: it would be correct to say 'everyone knows how to wash himself', but what people say is 'everyone knows how to wash themselves' or the really twisted version '...how to wash themself."

Jack said: "It's really hard on my French ears. Thank God we have the little word "on" which gets around that kind of difficulty."

I said "Jack, English used to have the equivalent of the French 'on' -- one, as in 'one goes one's own way'. But it's gone now, gone for good."

Jack said: "And I guess, it isn't coming back. Boo-hoo."

I said "There is a similar word in Dutch and German. Besides in Dutch nobody gets excited if you say the equivalent of "everyone goes his own way. It's understood that it's the simplest way to handle the problem."

Jack said "maybe we could solve the sexist language thing by having men say 'everyone goes his own way' and women say 'everyone goes her own way.'"

I said: "Jack, you know, that's not a bad solution. Why don't we try injecting that idea into the language?"

Jack said: "It would be easier if we could include some women in this project, I mean you and I can't use the female version."

I said "You're right, we're handicapped right from the start. If we don't have one or more women actively involved in this project, it won't have a chance of succeeding. On the other hand if we get one or more women involved, it would be difficult to keep you focused."

"There is that," said Jack, effectively putting an end to that discussion.

Do you feel like taking up this challenge, dear reader?

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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