Friday, May 20, 2011

The smelly pony

Modern psychology has confirmed the deep psychological insights of a few 19th century thinkers (most notably, perhaps, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche) about the extent to which we are strangers to ourselves. We often do not see ourselves as clearly as others - even chance acquaintances - see us, or know our own minds.

I once read an account of a young woman who realized with great surprise that she had really hated the pony she thought she had loved as a girl. All girls love their ponies, don't they? And her younger self had duly conformed. But, looking back, she suddenly realized that that girl did not love her pony at all. It was evil-tempered and evil-smelling. A burden was lifted, an unnecessary self-deception revealed.

I can think of similar examples from my own adolescence. My 'love' of playing cricket lasted into young manhood, and it took a mere acquaintance (an older man, the captain of a team for which I was playing) to ask the obvious question - and to dispel the illusion. Again, a burden was lifted. At my father's initiative, I had had extensive training in the game, and, until that slightly embarrassing (but liberating) conversation, I continued to play it out of habit or duty or a delusion, not that I was good at it (I clearly wasn't), but that I enjoyed it.

Now, this may be drawing a long bow, but I recently wondered whether my love for the English language might not be another case of 'the smelly pony'. English is a brute of a language to use well. I don't know about you, but, even as a native speaker, I find it a struggle sometimes. I don't really feel at home in my own language!

English is classed as Germanic, but is really a mixture of Germanic and Romance. The double vocabulary (Anglo-Saxon/Norman), reflected in legal phrases like 'last will and testament' and 'storm and tempest', is well known and results in an unnecessarily large and unwieldy lexicon. But English sentence structure - not just the lexicon - seems also to have been influenced by the French-speaking Normans, to the extent that German sentence structures sound strange to us. (For English and the Romance languages the basic word order for transitive sentences is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), whereas German has verb-final order in subordinate clauses.) I wonder if native speakers of, on the one hand, Germanic languages like German or Swedish, or, on the other, of French or the other Romance languages, ever feel daunted by - not at home in - their own tongue. I doubt it.