Hey, V here. First of all, when you look at the subtitle of this post: Grammar Time! I want you to hear MC Hammer in your head. Can you hear it? Grammar Time (da na na nut, na nut, na nut). I just spent the morning helping my way-past-elementary-school sister with her Business English homework. Today’s topic was Possessive Nouns. Cue Beethoven’s 5th (Da na na na…..)
English is hard! Even for a native English speaker. Wanna know why? Here’s a brief history of the English Language.
When Rome fell to Alaric and the Visigoths in 410, the Romans could no longer defend the empire. Outlying areas like Britannia were among the first to be overrun by other tribes. There’s lots of dispute among historians about why the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (among other tribes) pushed off their homelands in what is now Germany and moved into England, but they did and brought with them, their Germanic language. This became known as Anglo-Saxon or Old English.
Let me dispel a little myth here: Shakespeare is not Old English. It’s a somewhat archaic, poetic, modern English. If you don’t read German, then this Old English will look like Greek to you:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum
Hey, I was an English Literature major in college with a minor in German. I studied Anglo-Saxon for a semester and I still can’t make heads or tails out of that passage! It’s the opening of Beowulf. So our language started out as Old English, then in 1066 William the Conqueror conquered. He was from Normandy, France and brought with him, Norman French. French, of course, is a Latin language. It became the official language of the ruling class and as centuries passed, the Old English of the peasantry merged with Norman French to become Middle English.
Middle English was the language of Chaucer. Here’s the opening of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
OK, Middle English is still pretty hard to read but at least it looks like words. And if you read it out loud, phonetically you hear words:
When that april with his showers sweet, the draft of march hath pierced to the root, and bathed every vein in such liquor of which virtue engendered is the flower.
Then there was one more big thing to bring us to Modern English (I’ll stop the world and melt with you…no, no. Not that Modern English). The Great Vowel Shift.
The Great Vowel Shift was a change in pronunciation that happened between the years 1350 and 1500. At the same time, spelling was becoming standardized in English and that’s why we have such unruly spelling! But the long and short of it is, vowel sounds shifted. Short ‘a’ might have sounded like short ‘e’ before the switch. ‘Whan’ at the beginning of the ME Canterbury Tales is now ‘When’.
Then, of course, we reach the Bard and his version of Modern English. Here’s my favorite sonnet, #130:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red ;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Today’s Secret: English is hard because instead of being one language, it’s really two from opposing root languages, Germanic and Latin. But that history gives us great variety in our words. I heard once that there are some languages with only one word for all shades of red. English has hundreds of words for red. And that is what makes writing in English so fun. Shakespeare’s mistress’ breath might reek, and your mistress’ breath might be foul, and mine might just be funky.
When you write, just write the way you speak (yet another type of English – vernacular!). You can go back and fix the Grammar Time! (You’re hearing MC Hammer aren’t you?) later. There are lots of wonderful sites to answer your grammar questions.
And of course, every writer should have a grammar reference guide on her desk. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is the gold standard, but I LOVE Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss for punctuation guidelines. And it’s funny too! The important thing is this: Don’t let grammar get in the way of just writing.
Apparently Possessive Nouns is my sisters English troublespot. So what’s your favorite English pitfall?