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What a Strange Language We Are Learning!

Popularity 2Viewed 2716 times 2014-10-31 20:32 |Personal category:language|System category:Others

Being a teacher of English, we are often asked questions like: Why do we have to sayThe old lady died happy? Can’t we say The old lady died happily? Questions of this kind are actually very hard to answer because it seems contradictory to the “rule” we teachers give them. As is commonly known, adjectives describe nouns or pronouns, such as “black” in the sentence “She wore a black hat.” or “happy” in “I’ll try to make you happy.” And adverbs usually describe or add to the meaning of a verb, an adjective, another adverb or a whole sentence, such as “slowly” in “He ran slowly.”, “very” in “It’s very hot.”, or “naturally” in “Naturally, we want you to come.” In the sentence mentioned at the beginning, the word happy is very close to the verb die. Therefore, we tend to think that word should be an adverb, modifying die. Generally, we would explain to students that this “happy” is describing “the old lady”, not “die”. However, that explanation is far from satisfactory, for we often see a puzzled look on their face.


To fully understand this language phenomenon, we must know the fact that language can be unreasonable or illogical. Language is part of the culture of its speakers. The way a language works is largely a collective habit of the whole population. So long as an expression is accepted by the majority of people, it should be regarded as “standard English”, no matter how weird it is. As a language learner, we should respect their habit of using the language, learning to tolerate any “unusual” expressions we meet in the course of learning the language. After all, it’s their language, not ours. As a matter of fact, grammar is purely man-made product. Linguists, who produced that product, always try to discover some characteristics or rules that learners can follow. However, they find no rule is without exceptions. In this sense, not agreeing with grammar doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong. It could be idiomatically correct, though grammatically wrong.


Now I think we can get this conclusion: the sentence The old lady died happily is grammatically correct, but idiomatically wrong, for the simple reason that most native speakers of English don’t say that way. People use happy in the sentence because they want to tell us: She was happy when she died. Similarly, we can also say: The child went to bed angry.


If you look carefully, you are sure to find a lot of odd or grammatically wrong expressions in English. They may a little different, but actually they fall into the same category. To name just a few: to play safe; to go bankrupt; to act smart; to act local; to talk smart; to think big; to think global. As you may have noticed, the adjectives in those expressions function as adverbs. Respectively, we can say in a more common way: to play in a safe way; to go into a bankrupt state; to act in a smart manner; to act in a local fashion; to talk in a smart way; to think from a big perspective; to think from a global perspective. Comparatively, however, the former ones are much more efficient, more vivid, more impressive, using only two words. So as you can see, language can also evolve, the ones that are competitive will finally survive and be accepted by the general public.   

If you are a careful observer, you must have found there’re many unreasonable or even illogical words or expressions. There’s no egg in the word eggplant, and no ham in hamburger. There’s neither pine nor apple in the word pineapple. French fries is not invented in France. A boxing ring is actually not round, but square. Guinea pig is not a pig, nor from Guinea. The plural form of tooth is teeth, but for booth, it is booths. You would wonder how it is possible for a nose to run when you hear My nose is running. The same goes with Your feet smell. How can one’s feet smell? And “a fat chance” and “a slim chance” mean the same! However, isn’t it strange that “a wise man” and “a wise guy” should be the opposite?


The list can go on and on. So let’s face it: English is a crazy language. It was created collectively by people, not computers. That’s why you fill in a form by filling it out; that’s why when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. On the other hand, don’t you think it is where the fun lies in learning the language? It is truly a fascinating language!


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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