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Christian Science Monitor’s Ruth Walker spotlights English as a fascinating language
“There is no such thing as “the Queen’s English.’ The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the stock.”
Mark Twain (1835-1910), American writer and humorist
Facing a language that chooses “went” as the past form of “go”, many English language learners condemn English as a crazy language. Given the bizarre spellings, peculiar grammar rules, colorful idioms, and ever-expanding slang terms, it’s easy to understand this perspective. Yet English also remains a fascinating, fun language with wonderful stories hidden in plain sight.
As you might suspect, exploring phrases, word histories, and grammar quirks is a personal pleasure. Like many other English teachers and word lovers, I often find the language provides puzzles and paradoxes. Etymology can also be fun – and sometimes even produces clarifying lessons for English students. Framing English a fascinating language also seems like a better strategy to help English students than merely dismissing the mother tongue as “crazy.”
Over the years, I’ve learned to count on a few trusty, savvy guides like the American humorist Bill Bryson, the British linguist David Crystal, the American critic H.L. Mencken, and Ruth Walker. Who is Ruth Walker and how did she get included in such a fine list of writers? While far less famous and less significant as a popular linguist than Bryson, Crystal, and Mencken, Walker’s outstanding column Verbal Energy has become a weekly treat. She examines idiosyncrasies, pinpoints misconceptions, and explores the history of phrases and words in a breezy, yet highly informative, manner.
Verbal Energy, also available online, gently investigates the English language. Usually focused around a simple question, the short columns offer quick overviews to interesting questions. When did lawyers start to use the word “gender” instead of “sex” in discrimination suits? Walker’s memorable column discussed “how sex became gender” in official government documents in a compelling manner. Sometimes a small linguistic change can illuminate an shift in national political consciousness. It’s an illuminating example of why language politics sometimes matters.
I’ve also learned quite a bit of history through the column. For instance, a favorite column described the origins of country names. Another favorite column detailed prior to the Civil War, U.S. government documents almost always wrote of “The United States” as a plural noun as in “The United States are.” After the Civil War, however, “The United States is” became the default.
Yet not all the topics are so important. Sometimes Walker gathers inspiration from license plates; other times, she addresses popular sources of confusion. Perhaps her most eye-catching summer 2014 article comes from a July 26, 2014 piece entitled “Buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo,” that highlights the flexibility of English. The range of topics makes the linguistics column more interesting.
On those rare occasions when Walker wanders into overly-familiar debates over usage or grammar that seem exhausted, her writing flows easily with a pleasant, logical, and moderate tone. English teachers, writers, and word mavens will probably appreciate her always inquisitive and sometimes ironic style. As with so many subjects, the more you know, the more interesting the topic becomes. You see patterns, note possibilities, and learn more than trivia. English emerges, again, as a fascinating, not crazy, language.
What are some of your favorite language columns and blogs? Why?