PC 256 Words – English and Foreign

I have to admit that my record of learning a foreign language is extremely poor and I have started many times, on and off, over the years! It’s one of the advantages of advancing years, being able to accept oneself as oneself, not someone a youthful version might have envisaged! At school we were taught the rudiments of French as well as English, the latter being divided into language and literature.

Dauntsey’s School and Mercer’s Company’s coat of arms and Latin motto

I almost forgot that we also had to learn Latin, the language of the Greeks and the Romans. We made fun of it; God you needed to as it was to me as dry as desiccated leaves. Why is that I can remember the names of two Latin masters, Mr Moss at Glencot, and Dauntsey’s David Burgess but nothing they tried to teach me? For those of you young enough to have missed the edification provided by a Latin lesson, the only amusement was the learning of Dog Latin. This refers to the creation of a phrase in imitation Latin, often by ‘translating English words into Latin by conjugating or declining them as if they were Latin words’; that’s clear, isn’t it? Well, it would be if you knew what conjugating and declining meant!

The most famous of Dog Latin is the spoof of this verse:

Caesar adsum jam forte; Brutus aderat; Caesar sic in omnibus; Brutus sic in at.

The actual translation of the original verse is confusing! But we understood:

Caesar (h)ad some jam for tea; Brutus (h)ad a rat; Caesar sick in omnibus;

Brutus sick in hat.

Ubique quo fas et gloria ducunt’ , the Latin for ‘Everywhere where faith and glory lead’, was the motto of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. My uncle Bill Bailey used to pull my leg as, when advancing on Caen in July 1944, his battalion of Somerset Light Infantry suffered many casualties from ‘friendly fire’, highlighting the word ‘Ubique’ (everywhere) in our motto. It was probably better than ‘drop shorts’!  (Note 1)

Another motto echoing down the decades of English history is ‘Honi soit que mal e pense’ – a maxim in the Anglo-Norman language, a dialect of Old Norman French spoken by the medieval ruling class in England. It means ‘shamed be whoever thinks ill of it.’ One apocryphal story as to its origins concerned King Edward lll. Dancing at a ball in Calais to celebrate his victory in the 1346 Battle of Crecy, his daughter-in-law’s garter slipped down her leg, much to the amusement of the other guests and courtiers. He added to the ‘honi soit ….’ phrase by suggesting ‘whoever is laughing at this (the garter) today will later be proud to wear it’. (Note 2) The words appear today in heraldry and within the coats of arms of royalty.

So Latin aside, I tried to pass ‘O’ Level French; eventually I did but more by luck than knowledge. Next came German as, posted to a regiment in the British Army of The Rhine, it seemed the ‘right’ thing to do. Living in our English barracks with our English social life and little contact with the local population, it was easy not to bother. What I did learn is obviously very well embedded as often it’s a very basic German word that comes to my mind before a Brazilian Portuguese one for instance! Years later I completed two terms of evening classes at the Adult Education School in Clapham South in colloquial Italian. Only two!!

The City of Granada, home to the Alhambra

And then, after a long weekend in the wonderful Spanish city of Granada in the dying months of my marriage, I imagined spending six months there in some garret learning Spanish. It was a plan ……. but then I met Celina and for Spanish read Brazilian Portuguese!!

English must be very confusing to those who do not have it as their mother tongue. We have all seen the attempts by non-native English speakers to translate a brochure for instance, and it makes me smile. The other day I saw on the menu of the Intercontinental Hotel’s Terrace Bar in Estoril in Portugal ‘….. steak with Jack Potato.’ Commonly called Spud I suppose?

The Indian Bikram Choudury who put together his now famous sequence of 26 Hatha Yoga postures, to be practised in a room heated to 40° C, was not one for the purity of English. All his teachers went through a gruelling 9 week training course, during which they had to learn the exact words of ‘The Dialogue’, written by ……. Mr Choudury! The class teacher does not demonstrate the postures, relying on those students in the front row to show how a posture is done; listening to the oft-repeated dialogue will give you the instructions and guidance. But the dialogue is littered with appalling English and grammar. The two that really makes me inwardly scream are ‘more back’ when of course it should be ‘further back’ and ‘more straight’ when it should be ‘straighter’. It seems his default was to add ‘more’ to anything!

We hear words and try and make an attempt at spelling them. I was hopeless as a child and not much better now. Spellcheck doesn’t help as sometimes it’s the context which defines the letter combination. If you heard: “The Gobi dessert is a plaice of extreme whether. I red that their, in summer, the temperature reaches 45°C butt in winter it can drop down to -40°C!” you would understand it perfectly. Reading it and you would give the writer no marks for spelling. (Note 2)

In English we have strait and straight; course and coarse; draught and draft; desert (dry and sandy) and dessert (hopefully wet and creamy!); current and currant; there and their and they’re; weather and whether; are and our; bail and bale; plane and plain; read and red; lead and led and lead; made and maid; poor, paw, pore and pour; soul and sole; mine and mine; two and to and too ….. for instance.

Our knowledge of other languages, however scant, colours the understanding we have of our history. Understanding our history gives our lives today deeper meaning.

Richard 12th November 2021


PS In a recent episode of the BBC’s wonderfully informative ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ the actress Judi Dench discovered her C17th Danish heritage and her ancestors’ links to Shakespeare and the Danish king.

Note 1 ‘Drop short’ referred to the fact that sometimes the artillery shells, designed to fall on enemy positions, fell (dropped) short of their target, on our own troops.

Note 2 The Order of the Garter, established in 1348 by the then king, is the most senior order of knighthood in the British honours system, outranked only by the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.

Some of the current members of the Order of The Garter.

Note 3 The lack of rainfall is caused by the Tibetan Plateau blocking precipitation from the Indian Ocean.

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