English is so tricky!

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few amazing instructors over the past year.

Carl Strange teaches Latin 101 and 102. He writes the best announcements to encourage his students, tell them what’s coming up, and keep them interested in learning more.

I’m excerpting part of last week’s announcement, with his permission, because we gel on this topic. English is tricky!

Recent work in our course has highlighted some anomalies, one daren’t say deficiencies, in the ability of language to make itself clear. I speak, of course, not of Latin (which has its own deficiencies, particularly in regard to words describing color) but to English.
“The two most troublesome points we’ve covered recently are intensive and reflexive pronouns and the perfect tenses. In English, we rely on word order to make meaning, and it usually works. In the case of intensive and reflexive pronouns, though, sometimes it is maddening. Consider the sentence, “Paul Konerko scored himself.” This is ambiguous because we cannot tell without context what it means. Perhaps the slugger batted in a run, and we didn’t expect that for some reason. Alternatively, it might mean that he did a self-appraisal following a recent loss to Boston. But it might also be that he brushed against a projecting nail-head in the WhiteSox dugout. Love that English!
Then we come to the perfect tenses, where the bad news is, there is no “past tense” in Latin. There are three past tenses, each connoting its own thing. Imperfect we use to describe continuous, chronic, ongoing, or incomplete action in the past: “He used to love reindeer sausage.” Perfect describes action that is just flat done and over with: “He ate/has eaten/did eat the reindeer sausage.” And pluperfect posits action prior to some other time, also in the past: “He had never eaten such great reindeer sausage.” This is fairly simple compared to future perfect: “By the time we get home, I’ll bet he will have eaten the rest of the reindeer sausage.”
If all this is not miserable enough, there is the simple future tense, which in Latin is, well, future. In English we are accustomed to expressing it as though it were present: “I am going to Montreal next month.” Well, it isn’t next month, of course, so in what sense am I going there now? I’m not. What I mean but do not say is, “I shall go to Montreal next month.” But this sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? Love that English!”

He says it well. Both future perfect and pluperfect sound so strange. In speaking with non-native English speakers on this topic, I often hear that their language is clearer. Their language is easier to understand. As a person who has learned (and lost) one language and attempted to learn two others, I agree. At least when starting out on a new language, as I compare it to English I think, “brilliant!” Or, “easy and clear.” It is, of course, only later that I realize I either don’t have enough time to devote to this right now, or I am not going to Italy this year… best just put off learning Italian for now.


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