Saturday, November 19, 2005

Language Matters

I think this is becoming something of a hobby-horse or a soapbox issue with me this week... I had a conversation with someone in my office this week about whether or not "focus" should have an extra "s" before the "-ed" is added. I said it should not, but the print dictionary that was consulted had both spellings (ie. "focused" and "focussed"), so the person in question decided they would go with the double "ss" they had used, rather than re-print the paperwork. I gave them a brief explanation of the grammar rules about when to double the final consonant on a word before adding "-ed" and got back the response "How do you know this stuff?" To which I was tempted to reply "How do you not?" One of my other colleagues then asked if I had done an English degree, and I said, "Yes but I didn't learn about this doing my degree, I learn it at school." From the ages of 11 to 17, I went to what has become a rare entity in England, a grammar school. There I studied Latin to the age of 16, and I also learnt much about English grammar in my English classes. This has been a great boon - and probably explains my obsession with English language usage, but it also means that people say to me "How do you know this stuff?" when I explain a point of grammar, spelling or punctuation, and I am often perplexed that others do not know it.

This morning I went to the library to borrow (amongst other books) Herodotus' Histories (this is what comes of reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods !). Two of the library's copies were out on loan, and the only copy in the store was volume one of two, and they did not have volume two. The librarian looked on the catalogue to establish whether or not there was a copy of the complete Histories available in a branch library, and he found one that had been translated in the early part of the 20th century and extensively revised just two years ago. He suggested that the translation would be "modern" and "easy to read", as if this was a bonus, and I was forced to disabuse him of the idea. I pointed out my appreciation of the King James Version of the Bible, the fact that I had learnt Latin at school, and that I enjoyed reading Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale in the original "untranslated" English. The librarian looked a little dumbfounded and I said that I wanted a translation that retained some of the poetry and music of the original Greek; I didn't tell him that I had spent some time, as a 12 year old, translating Vergil's Aenied into English poetry for a Latin class. I could see he already thought I was a little strange ! But then I wondered why this was strange - Oxford is a University town, educated people abound, so why is it that someone who wants a copy of a book that, although it has been translated, retains some of the music and poetry of the original language, is considered odd ? Is it really that odd ? Would a librarian in the Bodleian have been less fazed by my request than the librarian at the public library ? I don't know, but it does puzzle me. When he told me the book would not be in until the end of the month, I said that was OK as I had plenty of other books to be going on with, and he looked at the small pile on the counter between us and shrugged. Perhaps he was wondering what the link was between Verlyn Flieger's new edition of Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major (which I'm desperate to own but cannot afford yet), Jane Austen's Emma, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and George Bernard Shaw's Back to the Methuselah ? I did not choose to enlighten him because I wasn't sure it was worth it. (I have eclectic reading tastes and every now and again I decide to read something other than fantasy fiction, something which I've heard about or seen mentioned somewhere.)

No comments: