Saturday, October 24, 2015

Band of Brothers, Household Words, and the Immortal St Crispin's Day Speech

“All things are ready if our minds are so.” — Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3, 
Wm. Shakespeare

October 25, 2015 -- tomorrow -- marks the 600th anniversary of a battle between the English and the French over a territorial dispute in northern France at a place called Agincourt. It was there that the scrappy but loyal English army — crazily outnumbered by the French armored knights — managed to pull off one of the most unlikely military victories of the Hundred Years War. Some 200 years later, William Shakespeare took this moment as the basis of his play, Henry V, and wrote the St. Crispin’s Day speech, one of the most inspirational speeches of all time.

For me, all this might have been lost without the movie, Henry V, made in 1989, or almost 400 years after the play came out; it stars the English actor-writer-director Kenneth Branagh as the 27-year-old King Henry V. This was perhaps King Kenneth’s finest hour:

In the film, King Henry rallies his troops moments before battle. It is October 25, 1415 and the sick, disheartened English soldiers are well aware of the 5-1 strength of the French army; Henry overhears his cousin, a noble named Westmoreland, wishing for more men to help their cause. The king responds, turning this wish around in a speech that captures each man’s desire for honor, glory, espirit-de-corps, and the chance that their names (i.e., his and some nobles’s but, whatever) would go down in history:

“Then will our names, 
Familiar in their mouths as household words*,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, 
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red …

(*The phrase, “household words” originated with that line.)

The real Battle of Agincourt fell on the English holy day of St. Crispin/Crispian, which commemorates twin Christian martyrs who died on October 25 circa 296. In his speech, Henry uses this coincidence, saying, “This day is call’d the feast of Crispian,” adding that whatever soldier outlived the day’s battle would thereafter “stand a-tiptoe” when the day was named; and that every year on St. Crispin’s Eve any veteran of this battle would feast his neighbors and roll up his sleeve to show his scars, saying, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day.”

As King Henry nears the end of his speech, he makes every soldier feel privileged to be there, to be part of this special corps, saying:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers …” 

But before I say how the line “band of brothers” has been immortalized in books and film, let’s first focus on the word “happy:”

King Henry is hardly calling his soldiers “merry” or “lighthearted” at that moment. The word “happy” is, like many adjectives in English, formed from a  noun with a “y” as a suffix. We see this in words like rainy, windy, salty, smelly, etc. Some words need a double-consonant before the y, like sunny, funny, skinny, etc., and “happy” falls into that bunch. 

The noun form, “hap,” by way of Old Norse, means “luck,” just as someone without luck is “hapless.” Meanwhile, “happy” has evolved to mean “content,” and is associated more with feelings of pleasure than luck. Of course, happy and lucky are often related, but the two are distinct as well. In any case, I think Shakespeare’s King Henry meant that his band was “lucky” to be together that day — a subtlety that adds a little more meaning (and sense) to the moment. 

As for “band of brothers,” this phrase has lived on — from Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Battle of the Nile in 1798 to the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks HBO series, “Band of Brothers,” based on the 1992 Stephen Ambrose book of the same name. Just as King Henry implied in his speech, a band of brothers today still means a close-knit group of fighting men.

And the speech works wonders on King Harry’s troops: Click on the link below, which starts just prior to the speech, to hear it for yourself — but don’t click off as the band of brothers cheer; instead, wait until after the messenger brings word of the advancing French army and the once-complaining cousin says he’s ready to single-handedly take them on. You just might find yourself a-tiptoe and bellowing a hearty, “Huzzah!”

What I really want to toast today, this 600th anniversary of Agincourt’s savagery and mayhem over land titles and kingly pride, is the silver lining: a speech whose heart and soul can give hope to any of us with heavy odds to fight and the guts to stay the course — and win.

#Stcrispinsday #shakespeare #bandofbrothers #henryV #battleofagincourt 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Pandering with Hillary’s God-Given Potential

At last week’s Democratic Debate Hillary finally showed herself as confident and natural, something the American media — and voters — waited for years to see. It may have been a performance, but it seemed real enough — except for a little linguistic crack in her veneer of confidence, and I want to give Hillary a tip: 

Ditch the words, “God-given potential.” 

What’s so wrong with those words? you might wonder. For one thing, no one says “God-given potential.” Usually “potential” is enough; if need be, we might add, “such potential,” or “enormous potential.” But “God-given potential” is just not natural — and thus, the crack in Hillary’s new natural persona. She’s pandering.

That pretentious word pair rang false each time Hillary said it, and she said it not just once, but three – three --  times, throughout the debate. It was excessive, shameless wording that targeted the religious, those wanting some sort of sign that Hillary is a woman of faith. What they heard sounded more like a golden calf.

In his “I Have A Dream” speech Martin Luther King ended with “God Almighty, we’re free at last!” And in that case, the usage was integral to his entire message. But that was over half a century ago. These days, it’s all about the polls and getting support from anywhere, any group. But I thought it was the Republicans who had the Super-Pac with the word, “God.”

Hearing Hillary go all-fake for a few (god-given) potential extra votes might be smart politics, but it’s cynical. Even the Bible doth protest (remember Matthew 6:5 about not blurting out prayers on street corners?) George W pandered and wooed — and look where that’s led! (#teaparty)

The offending words first surfaced in Hill’s opening statement when she said that each child should have the chance “to live up to his or her God-given potential.” Ditto the second time (re the criminal justice system) and again referring to children “living up to their God-given potential.”

Why did I keep thinking she was going to say, “goddam potential?” Was it the way she drew out her Midwestern twangy, “Gahd –“?

The third time, toward the end of the debate, she said, “And I want to make sure every single person in this country has the same opportunities that he (Bill) and I have had, to make the most of their God-given potential.” 

That time, I laughed out loud. Again, I thought she was going to use the curse word. And I realized it’s because when we use (a lower-case) “god-given,” it’s actually in a negative way, as in: “Who says it’s your god-given right to …” or “She thinks she’s got this god-given ability to …”  It’s an emphatic and strategic usage, deployed to strengthen an argument. 

So, Hillary — if you are trying to use that word to name-drop your association with the Almighty to reach religious voters, please stop. Godfahbid you come off as false after all that practice sounding natural.

#Hillary #firstdemocraticdebate #godgiven #pander

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Where Have You Been? vs. Where Were You? Explaining the Difference

I’ve been everywhere, man, looking for someone … searching for someone … Where have you been all my life?

A shout-out here to the pop singer, Rihanna, whose 2011 hit song, “Where Have You Been,” has provided, perhaps, a key to explaining when to say, for example, “I saw” vs “I have seen;” or, in Rihanna’s case, “Where have you been” vs “Where were you.”

Native speakers of English might not be aware of the difficulty foreign learners of English have in understanding the “have been” verb tense, grammatically known as the present perfect. This is because that tense is either rarely used, or simply does not exist in many languages, including French, Latin American Spanish and Portuguese, and German. In those languages, the tense known as the “simple past” (saw, had, played, did, etc.) usually does the job -- “Did you already see that movie?” -- with another form of assist from the present tense that translates as: “I wait for you since two hours!”  

When Rihanna belts out the chorus, “Where HAVE YOU BEEN (caps mine) all my life?” she should be asking a new-found love why he has not shown up until now. (Note: Do not use this whole song as a good example – just the chorus.) The idea of “now” is key in the present perfect: this tense expresses an idea rooted in the past – in this case, why wasn’t Mr. Right around, say, five or ten years earlier – and relates to the present. But the happy fact is, Mr. (or Ms.) Right is there at last – now. Rihanna, born in 1988, is currently 26 years old; her man, let’s say, is 29. “Where have you been all my life” is a happy question, because there is still plenty of time for them to be together.

On the other hand, if Rihanna sang, “Where WERE YOU all my life?” the story would suddenly change: the verb “were” is the simple past tense, meaning an action is over, completed, finished. The simple past tense makes it sound like Rihanna’s life is just about over, completed, finished; that maybe she’s now 99 years old and has discovered her true love at the very last minute. “Where were you all my life?” suggests that there is little or no time left to enjoy this relationship.

In a less dramatic context, let’s say your company has transferred you to New York from France for three years. At first you are so excited, thinking of all the places you want to see while in the United States and that being here for three years should give you plenty of time to explore. The reality is, work is time-consuming, and for one reason or another, your first year flies by with your never having left New York City. You go to a party and someone asks you, “How do you like the United States?” You reply:

WRONG: I like New York but I didn’t go anywhere else.
RIGHT: I like New York but I haven’t gone anywhere else.

The “right” response relates to now. Since you have only been in New York for one year out of three, you still have two years left to see the Grand Canyon, Washington, D.C., or lie on a beach in Miami.

The “wrong” response would only be correct for when, after three years, you are back in Paris and someone asks how you liked the United States. At that point, your time in the States is over, completed, and finished.

The “have done”/present perfect tense does not focus on when you do something – it just cares whether you have done it or are still doing it. The simple past tense is all about “when”: last week, a minute ago, the day you were born, and so on. So the sentence, “I have seen that movie” is perfect for when you and a friend are trying to pick a move to see. But “I have seen that movie last week” is wrong, because “last week” is over, so the correct verb should be “saw,” or “I saw that movie last week.”

Native English speakers never confuse their tenses in the above situation; however, there are times when they do mix the two, such as in, “Did you eat lunch yet?” (It will probably sound like “Djoo-weet lunch yet?”) That sentence, and similar usages, are common enough to have become standard English – and yet technically the question conflicts with the “rules” of each tense: “Did you eat” = some point in the past, but “yet” = “up until now.” The truth is, native English speakers typically do not know the rules behind these two tenses (and probably wouldn't care if they did). The decisive factor here is that it’s quicker to say “djoo-weet yet” than “have you eaten yet” and since speed and ease of saying things often (and in other languages, too) trump being “correct,” the two forms of past tense have found a certain amicable co-existence.

Has this helped you? If so, just ask Rihanna where she has been all your life!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lie vs Lay vs #MileyCyrus

Andrea, from Los Angeles, wrote recently to ask if I had seen the letter (posted on multiple media sites) from “rock Indie heartthrob” Sufjan Stevens to Miley Cyrus. I thought I could guess the topic, but, no, he was not taking Miley to task for her famously outlandish twerking at the VMA Awards. Instead, it turned out to be perhaps the first charmingly suggestive fan letter ever disguised as a grammar lesson.

Stevens opened by pointing to Miley’s use of “lay” instead of “lie” in her current song, “#Get It Right.” A quick reading of the lyrics revealed worse defects than grammar (lack of subtlety, for one). But Stevens’s concern was this:

“I been laying in this bed all night long
Don’t you think it’s time to get it on”

“Miley,” Stevens said in the letter, “technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING; (laying is) an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e., ‘I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.’”

Stevens, a forgiving guy, says, “But don’t worry, even Faulkner messed it up.”
Now, I assume here that Stevens is referring to William Faulkner’s novel, “As I Lay Dying.” However, I think Stevens has this one wrong: Faulkner’s title suggests a past form verb tense, and since the past form of “lie” is “lay” then both the verb and tense are impeccable. Whatever.

Perhaps too much Miley on the brain got Stevens momentarily muddled, because he was soon grammatically back on track, pointing out that #Get It Right got the verb tense wrong: “Surely, you’ve heard of the Present Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long …)?” Here, Stevens is absolutely right, if a tad school-marmish given the context and nature of the song.

The present perfect continuous tense that Stevens cites is used when we want to convey an action started in the past that is still continuing. (“I’ve been waiting forever!”) What Stevens neglected to mention is that few Western languages have this tense – and English is unique among the Germanic languages it’s a part of to have it (thank you, 5th century Celts!)

Oddly, Stevens stays away from this wonderful bit of arcane linguistic history when describing the present perfect continuous. Instead, he uses the tense as a jumping-off point for combining verb tense knowledge, as well as what emerges as his own Miley-mania, all in one:

“It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks.” (Go, Sufjan! You’re clearly taking this tense seriously.)

Then he gets personal: “But I have a feeling your ‘present perfect continuous’ involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense?”

Honestly, if grammar were made this exciting in school, perhaps teachers might consider teaching it (first, most teachers would have to learn it, since English grammar stopped being taught in American public schools in the 1970s). But a Sufjan Stevens grammar class could clearly be a high school favorite.

As Stevens brings his note to a heated close, he drops his grammar lesson but still manages to bring parsing and passion together:

“Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan.
Don't ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan”

Language Lady thanks this Indie rocker grammar-guy for bringing “lay,” “lie,” #Miley, verb tenses, and even personal tension to our attention; after all, attention to grammar is, ideally, Present. Perfect (well, rarely, even among those who try). And Continuous.


More than one reader responded to the “Such,” “As,” and “Such as by” article with thoughts that had occurred to me early on, but got ruled out the more I researched the exact meaning of “such,” “such as,” and “such as by.” 

The feeling among these readers, who thoughtfully went through my post with a fine-toothed comb, was that “such as” and “such as by” are legitimate legal phrases and that in the given document, “such as by” implies that there are more out ways possible than the examples given, whereas “as by” implies only the given examples.

Their concern was that perhaps by tweaking the legalese the way I did, I might have also changed the meaning. Any opinions or considerations out there?

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Such As, By, and Such as by

The Language Lady has started going through her mail, and will address readers' questions in the next few entries. FIrst is one from Daniel, a lawyer in California: 

Q. Hello Language Lady,

The basic question is whether one must say “such as by,” or is it equally acceptable to say “as by”?  That is, do you need the “such”?  Consider this sentence: 

“If the recipient of the disparaging communication cannot act on the injurious words, such as by reducing or withdrawing his bid on the property, then no tort occurs.”

Would that sentence be just as good if I said “. . . injurious words, as by reducing ….”? 

A. Hi Daniel,

Good Point!  It’s great to know there are grammatically aware lawyers out there who want to eliminate unnecessary words; and you’re right in detecting that there is something unhealthy about that sentence. But it’s not just “such.”

Let’s start by paring the phrase down to its subject-verb-object essentials:
“If recipient cannot act on words, such as by reducing or withdrawing …”

The problem is with “such as.” Look what happens when we take "such as" away:
“If recipient cannot act on the injurious words by reducing or withdrawing his bid on the property, then no tort occurs.” Using only “by” shows the means by which the recipient might take action. “Such as” is extraneous because the phrase itself goes with things, not actions. For example:

“I eat fruit, such as apples and bananas.” Here, “such as” specifies what kind of fruit (apples and bananas). We don’t say, “I eat fruit, such as by peeling apples and bananas.” 

That is basically what is going on in your document: “such as” is modifying “injurious words” while the little preposition “by” is showing how the required action should be taken; i.e., “reducing” or “withdrawing” the bid.

Sticking “such as” together with “by” is thus a bit like mixing oil and water – each has its special purpose but should not be used together.

Your suggestion to go with “as by,” deleting “such,” would render the pared-down version to: “If recipient cannot act on words, as by reducing or withdrawing his bid …”  Does that sound natural to you?

How about “as by” in a different context:
“She gets to work quickly, as by taking the subway or riding her bike.” It doesn’t work, does it? Right: we don’t need “as.” That sentence should be, “She gets to work quickly by taking the subway or riding her bike.” Just using “by,” is perfectly efficient in showing how she gets to work.

Language Lady will close “by” proposing another version for your document, “such as”: “If the recipient of the disparaging communication cannot act on the injurious words and neither reduces nor withdraws his bid on the property, then no tort occurs.”

Saturday, September 07, 2013

“Me and My Friend” : Another Rule Bites the Dust

“It’s Sunday evening and me and my friend Ruth feel like walking.” This was the first sentence in a front-page article I found in this week’s “West Side Spirit,” a weekly neighborhood paper written about and by generally educated and informed Upper West Siders in New York.

As the article unfolded, it was clear that this sentence was not intended to be dialect or deliberately slang-y; it was a serious article, a thought piece about the fallen World Trade Center and the Freedom Tower that is rising in its place. The author’s use of “me and my friend Ruth” (yes, devoid of commas, too) was simply his natural language, the same one my own 20-something children often use among their peers.

I’ve been hearing this kind of talk for years. Between the late 1990s and well into the 2000s (and probably yesterday), I typically corrected my young and later teenaged children when they said things like, “Me and James are going uptown;” I forced them to say the standard English, “James and I are going uptown,” before they actually did go uptown. I was not being a grammar snob – just a mom who wanted her children to know how to speak the language that would most help them get a good job and not be considered illiterate at the interview.

Well, them days is over: the writer of the article and that sentence, a man named Adam Berlin, actually teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Mr. Berlin’s use of that phrase stood out to me as a sign that the language is changing. It was like hearing President Obama say, “with Michelle and I” (as I noted in a February 2009 blog).

When there is no more social stigma to a particular grammar usage, the fight is pretty much gone; what remains is a certain lengthy transition period – for instance, most Baby Boomers and I will be taking the traditional standard to our graves. (Me and my friends just don’t talk like that!)

And though the writings of one teacher do not immediately constitute an entire generational change, this seems like an example of an established linguistic theory of language change -- like a verbal stone dropped into a river that ripples outward. This particular change has been coming for pretty much my whole life; yet, though baby boomers and Gen Xers rebelled about certain things (the Vietnam War, civil rights, nukes, whales etc.), we pretty much accepted being corrected on that particular grammatical point.

Grammar changes are coming rapidly these days. Since starting this blog seven years ago this month, I have modified my stance on two other big grammar changes that I have come to accept, rather than struggle to uphold: “lie vs lay,” (blog post Sept. 2012), for which there is now no real distinction between the two; and then with the above-mentioned, standard grammarian’s long-decried “with her and I (or other such combinations), which would traditionally have been “with her and me.”

Me and you are probably wondering what will be next.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Accents & Dipthongs

Dear Language Lady, 

   I’m from Chicago and have a passion for languages and accents. I have a Polish friend who has an accent when she speaks English. Even her “hello” sounds different. Is this because she hasn’t mastered the diphthong sounds of our vowels? I’ve heard that the vowels in other languages are pure and ours are diphthong-y. Is this what gives her (and other foreign English speakers) an accent?

- Liz from the WIndy City

  Dear  Windy City Liz,

   Interesting question! But the reason your friend has an accent is not because she is unfamiliar with diphthongs (i.e., elongated vowel sounds) – Polish has those too. The reason your Polish friend has an accent is because she is inserting her Polish vowels and consonants into American words. So before going into diphthongs, I will first explain about accents.


   Foreign accents – whether it’s Americans speaking another language or vice versa -- are the result of placing your tongue in the same position for a foreign word as you would for your own language.  This goes for consonants as well as vowels. For example: when you’re at a bar and ask for a Dos Equis using your American alphabet sounds, see how gringo you sound? That’s because Spanish speakers pronounce the letter “d” with the “th” sound we use for “the.” So if you say “Dos” using the Spanish “d,” your tongue is then in position to produce their shorter, tighter “o;” add an “s” and – olé – you might even sound authentic (well, until you get to “Equis”).

     European, Asian, Uralic and many other languages tend to keep the tongue in the middle of their mouth to say their vowels – this gives the vowels a certain tension. Try this: while keeping your tongue between the roof of your mouth and your jaw, say ah-eh-eee-oh-oo. Now do the same using our vowel sounds, and notice how your tongue lies naturally in the lower jaw. This is what elongates our vowels and gives them that distinctly American sound.

     For a foreign-accented “hello,” you start with your h-sound + short “e” (heh) in the middle of your mouth, where it naturally produces a clipped “e” sound; this in turn leads to a light, clipped “l” sound tapped quickly on the roof of your mouth, and ends with a tense “o” in the middle of your mouth: Heh-Lohhh! An American, however, would start “hello” with the tongue in the lower jaw, tongue behind the teeth. The “h” + relaxed “e” produced from the lower jaw then leads the tongue to slightly flatten against the roof of the mouth for a heavier-sounding “l” and ends with the “o” elongating in the lower jaw. Hel-LO-o-hhh!

 THONGS (Monoph-, Diph-, and Triph-)

     Thong is an unusual word – not just because we now associate it with the smallest piece of lady’s underwear ever invented. It’s because it’s not only Anglo-Saxon, going all the way back, pre-950 A.D., to the Old Norse word, “thvengr,” meaning “strap,” or piece of material or animal hide to secure something (as the middle piece of a flip-flop or thong-style sandal holds your foot in place), but also a Greek word meaning “sound.”

     The “diphthongs” (pronounced either “dip”- or “dif”-thong) that the writer from Chicago referred to in the letter above literally means “two-sounds,” which many English vowels have, even in a word of only be one syllable, like “day” or “lie.”  When you say the names of our English vowels – A, E, I, O, U – you are saying diphthongs, whose two-sounds can be heard in words like play, rear, fried, boat, and cute. “How” and “low” are diphthongs, too. What each of those vowel sounds has in common is that it forces your mouth and/or tongue to move to complete the sound:

     If you say, “boat,” “how,” and “cute,” notice how, after the initial vowel sound, your lips round together to complete it. After saying the initial sound in “play,” “fried,” and “rear,” your tongue arches upward to make a type of “y”- sound, making these vowels two-sounded. “Pure” vowel sounds, or monophthongs (“monof”thongs), on the other hand, do exist in English – in words like “pop,” “lend,” “please,” and “love.” They’re called “pure” sounds because there is no glide from one sound to another, but are relatively fixed from the beginning to the end of the word. (So, a monophthong is literally FUN!)

     But English hardly has a monopoly on diphthongs; they exist in all major Western languages and in tongues as varied as Estonian, Mandarin Chinese, and Zulu. For instance, diphthongs are why it’s so hard for us English-speakers to say “oeil” or “loi” or “soeur” (eye, law, sister) in French. “Rey,” (king) and “hoy” (today) are among the many diphthongs in Spanish, just as “meu” (my) “oi” (hi) and “muito” (very) are in Portuguese. Say “München” or any umlauted-u or o in German, and you have a diphthong.

     Finally, there’s the “triphthong” – as in the English words, “fire,” “iron,” and “hour” --where a vowel glides from one sound to the next and to another (3 times), all effortlessly with native speakers. You probably never even realized just how acrobatic and articulate your vowel sounds are – but that same speed and subtlety in someone else’s language is elusive to adult non-native speakers; and that will always, to one degree or another, keep the world swimming in foreign accents.