This morning I took my daughters to school. A group of fathers were going for a coffee before work so asked me to go along. One friend lives for sport before most other things. He teaches it, is a semi-professional in two, watches it live or on TV, is encyclopaedic in his knowledge – of sport in France and a very little in the rest of the world.
So, a sport issue came up. He does not mind adoptions from English, but he wants to know what they really mean. Today’s poser was ‘tie breaker’. It is actually an easy one. It means that two or more people or teams have finished equal. Essentially the clue is in the fact it is most frequently two. So I asked one of the other men if we could start to web search.
We sorted it out fairly quickly. Tie-breaker has been adopted into lots of languages since its origins back in time are ‘tie’ used in 16th century English and tie breaker is about figuratively untying a knot. ‘Dénouer un nœud’ in French. It is one of those things that simply do not work, so the adopted Anglicism works better.
One thing led to another and naturally one of those great debates about which language is correct began. After a couple of moment the letter H arose. It is, said one of them, an almost superfluous letter that is there to make the distinction between spellings but since it is not spoken is of no consequence, so why is it used in English? Somebody else threw in its non use in other Latin languages. My retort was Spanish does, the response was that it does not. I agreed that a written H is not used but please pronounce ‘jamon’ or ‘juegar’ and the J becomes an H sound. Somebody kicked in with Italian. Quite right to a point, but where it is used it change pronunciation so Giuseppe and Ghiselli come out very differently. Italian is a language that uses every letter. Back to English and there are words where it is pronounced such as ‘hat’ and others like ‘hour’ where it is not, a couple of them argued. So, they thinking they had me back against the wall, I smiled and said the former has a Germanic root ‘hut’ and the latter the same Latin root ‘hora’ as ‘heure’. I smiled and added that in Latin the H is pronounced.
I got a ‘that may well be’ response but was told that French is a far more precise language than English. I agreed but did add that the four most used verbs are être, avoir, aller and faire, each of them irregular.
Take être with its distinct present tense forms, of which suis, sommes and sont bear no relation to the infinitive and compare that to I am, you, they and we are with he, she and it is is complicated and also irregular, but then sommes is the only nous form in the language not to end in –ons and êtes one of two vous forms in the language not to end in –ez or future forms ser-, derived from Latin ESSE, different from the infinitive, derived from Latin STARE. It is no more or less irregular that TO BE but certainly more difficult. Then throw in aller and the initial v- of present tense forms not present in the infinitive or third person plural form vont one of only four to end in –ont and, for good measure, the future stem ir- derived from a different root to the infinitive, the original Latin infinitive IRE. I said go and goes is easy and the went seems strange but no more than the French equivalent. I did not bother with avoir and faire, I knew I was ahead on points.
But no, somebody want to get back to English being far easier because it is grammatically easier than French. Perhaps said I, but then French has developed its Frankish-Germanic way of using Latin roots differently to English which is Norman French with the Saxon Germanic language of the majority, a few older languages and Norse bits and pieces. What did they expect? I asked who knew English grammar well? Blank looks. My killing blow was to say that actually English can be incredibly difficult grammatically plus the fact it is a language with far more options for words and in many specialised cases particular words are used in specific instances although there might be a choice of as many as twelve in a thesaurus.
Sport returned. Safer ground. The five minutes of language debate was a bit like mentioning last Saturday’s rugby international and suggesting we all meet for lunch to have spaghetti! One of the men asked me aside how I knew about French grammar, after all my spoken French is pretty awful. I accepted that and said that I had had the advantage of an education that had included classics. In the UK French ranks with Latin and Greek as a classical language and all three were drummed into us so that although on leaving school and we vowed to forget, in reality in emergencies such as that it all comes back. Plus, I added, I get the impression that I was the only father present who takes his turn helping with homework. My point was that our children are learning what they had forgotten and I have the benefit of having a hand in it through what is brought home. He slapped my shoulder, the bad one of course, and asked me whether France or Wales would win on Saturday. I reminded him we had moved here from Wales although not Welsh ourselves then smiled.
I enjoyed that coffee. I did not even have to pay.