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.


  1. I been mark essay ,which many like this. There being no plural ,when should be. Also comma. Should I mark it good. Many academic this problem in global world today. English very hard language ,I say.

  2. Having studied French through my teens - which entailed countless errors of speech and writing - I am sympathetic to those who (in post-childhood years) are obliged to learn English - a far less compact (and less logical?) language than French.

  3. Oop, duh, I inadvertently posted this on your May 6 entry, but it belongs here!...
    Ah yes, good points about knowing thyself. I tend to question whether my desires are real/true or just whims that I wanted to believe. As a young girl, I had a lot of interests and jumped around in various activities. My parents found it frustrating as I never seemed to settle on one true love--like piano, or softball, or dance (though I stuck w/that one through college). And then I fell into a career that I knew wasn't really me. I'm finally writing, which is the very thing I always wanted to do... some of my first memories are those of wanting to be a writer, and I wrote often when I was a little girl. And I've always been taken w/the English and French languages. I think I've finally found myself in that respect (even if I can't support myself in this manner). And I have a feeling I'll be doing this until the bitter end! And
    (Oh yes, and how I loved ponies, too!) ;)

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Jayne. I suspect that just about everyone misreads their desires to a greater or lesser extent, but it certainly helps to have a questioning mind and to be aware of the problem.

    I had a look at your blog - very impressive. My interests used to be more 'literary' than they now are. An early interest in poetry and novels has reduced to an interest in language and its logic. But the subjective elements of language (rhythm, 'feel', etc.) still fascinate me.