Saturday, September 19, 2015

Women and Horses

There are many words in any language which are either openly sexist or sexist in their etymology. In a book I'm currently reading on the etymology of English words and the history behind them, a question arises as to whether the word "bridegroom" is sexist in meaning. The author discounts as "crazy" the explanations some have given for the origin of the word - one who grooms the bride or gives her the value of a horse.

Photo of horses I took a couple of months ago.

In the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospel of St John, the word used for bridegroom is brydguma. We know what bryd or bride is but what on earth is guma? It's perhaps clearer when brydguma was spelt bredgome in 1340. From my own rather sketchy knowledge of Middle English poetry, gome means man. And it's not just gome. Any student of medieval literature will recall the headache we all had over the dozen or so words for just "man" or "knight" alone and they include, if my memory serves me, tulkeseggewight  and many more I can't now recall; the weird-sounding ones being from dialects such as the Lancastrian dialect of Middle English. But gome means man and even though I've not read medieval poetry for ages, I can still remember that much. To cut a long story short (and etymological stories can be pretty long), "bridegroom" simply means the bride's man as the author of the etymology book suggests. That's what he says but I hold an entirely different view and that's not the end of the story, as I will explain later.

The anti-sexist sentiment we see today has gone overboard with changes made to the hymns we all love. Let me give examples from famous Christmas carols. "Good Christian Men" has been changed in some hymnals to the effete sounding "Good Christian Friends". "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is avoided in some groups because they can't change the word without doing violence to the tune. In the Christmas hymn the whole world loves "Joy to the World", the line, "Let men their songs employ" is altered so that the word men is replaced with all. Just try singing that and you will see that it doesn't feel the same. And there are countless more hymns destroyed by extreme feminism. I've even heard of suggestions to change the name of the Holy Trinity to the blasphemous "Cloud, Rock and Holy Spirit" because "Father" and "Son" are of course too sexist for some people.

This is all quite unnecessary. Language, like religion and culture, is a good reflection of our human history. Of course any language that has a history exceeding a mere 50 years is bound to be sexist. The Chinese language is one of the oldest languages in the world and it has continued relatively unchanged for a few thousand years. The word for "woman" is written hieroglyphically as someone who kneels. The word for "good" is written to depict the kneeling woman carrying a child. And for "peace", we see that same kneeling woman caged in a house. But nobody has suggested that these ancient characters be changed to something that reflects our non-sexist worldview today.

When I was a boy, the sentence "Every child must drink his milk" was the only correct form because "every" is singular. As I grew older, I had to say "Every child must drink his or her milk" because how could we be so sexist as to exclude girls among the children? Soon people got tired of the additional words and it's now common to say "Every child must drink their milk", never mind the fact that "every" is singular. It's always wiser to sacrifice grammar for political correctness.

My point is you can't change everything. You've got to make up your own language from scratch if you really want to rid a language of all traces of sexism. Sure, bridegroom may simply mean a bride's man but what about the word "bride"? Etymologists will quickly point out that the Old English bryd comes from Old Frisian bred or breid, Old Saxon brud (Dutch bruid), Old High German brut and Old Norse bruthr. But what do these words actually mean? This is what the author of my etymology book does not explore.

The root word really means "one owned or purchased". Some etymologists believe it also has some link to cooking so I suppose a broader view would be a bride is someone who is owned or purchased to do the cooking. I'm tempted to think (although I'm sure I'm etymologically flawed) that the word "bride" has some link to the word "bridle". My Middle English vocabulary has shrunk considerably after years of laying off medieval literature but I do know that "bride" also meant "bridle" in Middle English and in the mid-19th century, "bride" carried the additional meaning of a bonnet-string and that was the time when all women wore bonnets. If I allow myself to be a little more imaginative and I think of the bonnet-string as a bridle (both were called "bride"), I suppose the idea of a bridegroom as one who bridles the bride as a groom does a horse isn't all that far-fetched.

If I were a woman, sexism in language would not bother me one bit. You can't change history and language is a reflection of what we were once like. If I were a woman, I would want a constant reminder of how far we have come from the days when women were bridled and in this respect, language serves as a most effective memorial of what it used to be and how much women have triumphed. Far from denigrating women, sexism in language is a woman's badge of victory.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

TAKE this!

Although I have written more than 50 or 60 articles in this blog alone about the outrageous language mistakes made by the Speak Good English Movement, I would be dishonest if I did not say that most Singaporeans aren't at all so clueless about English grammar and usage as the Movement is. If you would like to look at all these articles, please visit my user-friendly one-page list of all the links to these articles.

But there is a group of Singaporeans who are very much like the Speak Good English Movement - hypercritical but ignorant and stupid. These are the people who first told me years ago that cute really meant "ugly but adorable". I thought it was a joke when I first heard it but the person who told me that, a former colleague who normally spoke quite good English, assured me that this was the dictionary definition of the word. Of course I didn't believe her and I dismissed it as her own personal peculiarity until more and more people (all Singaporeans) told me precisely the same thing. It was like a form of national insanity and I have always been trying to figure out the origin of such a quirky definition. Somebody must have started it just to see how many people would be taken in and how far this obviously wrong definition of such a simple word would travel.

When I was in uni, one of my fellow students told me that take meaning "eat" was Singlish and not Standard English as in "He took his lunch at MacDonald's". Naturally, I didn't believe him. I'm positive I've seen this usage countless times in the works of literary giants such as Jane Austen who, I'm sure, had never been anywhere near Singapore in order to be influenced by Singlish. Right at this moment, I'm in the midst of reading a novel by Sebastian Faulks and I have noted at least two separate occasions when take is used to mean simply "eat".

Knowing how rotten the Speak Good English Movement really is, I was not surprised to see this on their website:

Take has a wide range of meanings and I last counted more than 60 different definitions in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary alone. The title of this post makes use of yet another meaning of "take" and despite its brevity, it can quite effectively conjure up a picture of me in a boxing ring socking the Speak Good English Movement across the face and saying "Take this!"

One other definition in the dictionary is "eat or drink". Here's one example given in the Shorter Oxford:
I take my breakfast at George's Cafe. 
You can't find a better example to prove beyond the smallest doubt that the Speak Good English Movement is once again totally wrong. It's fortunate that the dictionary gave an example that is word-for-word what the Movement says is wrong. From my wide experience with some of these educators in Singapore, I know that if I had picked an example such as "She took tea in the garden" (which I believe comes from one of Jane Austen's novels), they might very well respond that you could say "take tea" but not "take breakfast". The example given in the Shorter Oxford should end all argument on this subject. The Speak Good English Movement is just blatantly wrong, as always.

But I don't want to just stop there. I'm interested in how it all started. Who first came up with this lunatic suggestion that you could not use "take" in this way? One doesn't need much sleuthing skill for that. Ever since I first noted how incredibly ignorant of the English grammar the Speak Good English Movement was some time last year, I've been following them on their website and I've also read their outrageously erroneous grammar book (in two volumes). Those who have been following my blog should know this because I have written extensively on their errors (see the link above). And I think I have discovered the source of this ridiculous notion that take when used to mean "eat" is non-standard Singlish.

When I first noticed that Ludwig Tan, a consultant to the Speak Good English Movement, showed an inordinate respect for an unknown teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education (NIE) called Adam Brown, I took it upon myself to see what it was that this person had written that appeared to have swept Ludwig Tan off his feet. Adam Brown's book which is published in Singapore (of course) is called Singapore English in a Nutshell. If you have read the articles in this blog in which I slammed Ludwig Tan for his astonishing errors in the English language, you will remember that on a couple of occasions I took a swipe at Adam Brown whom Ludwig Tan cited as an authority. Click here for an example. You will recall Ludwig Tan's irritatingly obtuse failure to understand that you can't pit an NIE teacher against the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you are interested in having a look at Ludwig Tan's laughable blunders that I have blogged about, go to Section 1B of my List of Grammar Terrorists.

I looked into Adam Brown's book and sure enough, I finally stumbled upon the source of this error in Singapore. Adam Brown, in his book, explains that take may be used in 3 different situations:

1. "When the thing to be swallowed is unpleasant, such as medicine..."

2. "When the enquiry is about a particular method of eating or drinking: Do you take sugar in your coffee?

3. "When take means 'have delivered'."

I have said many times before that a good teacher is one who does not make up his own grammar rules or word definitions but we see time and again educators in Singapore doing precisely that. What Brown doesn't know is the above are simply 3 of the 60 or so definitions of the word take. Let's get one thing clear: this teacher in Singapore's National Institute of Education is not an authority on the English language. When you need to look up a point of grammar, you consult Burchfield or Quirk or Greenbaum and there are many others too but you do not consult a Mr Brown from Singapore's NIE. Why then do Singapore's educators including the Speak Good English Movement depend so much on this teacher in Singapore who is an unknown in the world of English grammar? And he is absolutely wrong too. We do not know what peculiar regional variant of the English language he is influenced by but we do know he is wrong and has been shown to be wrong in a couple of my previous blog posts.

Can you imagine what it's like when Brown, a teacher in our National Institute of Education, makes an error in English and it doesn't matter if it's a point of grammar or the definition of a word and its usage? He teaches our teachers who in turn teach our students. If Ludwig Tan is representative of all our English language teachers and Tan has been shown to tenaciously refer his readers to Brown's flawed book despite the clear words of the Oxford English Dictionary to the contrary, do you not think Singapore's language teachers would treat Brown with the same respect, misplaced though that may be?  Do you see now why some of these hilarious quirky mistakes can be perpetuated as a Singaporean peculiarity? All it takes is one self-assured but ignorant teacher with an air of overweening authority to teach something wrong and many language teachers in Singapore will just assume he's right and repeat his mistake to generations of students.