Two Languages

Dec 8, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Do you ever wish you could speak a second language? You already do: English. Let me explain. It will help you understand what Mark Twain and our other Mississippi Valley writers all are about.

The first "English" language was Anglo-Saxon, a plain, muscular language spoken by Germanic tribes who had migrated to England. Now comes 1066, which you remember from school as the Battle of Hastings, won by William the Conqueror and his Normans, who established French as the official language of England.

A century later, the French took Normandy away from the Normans, and in a fit of patriotism, the Normans in England decided to speak English rather than French. What emerged, of course, were bits and pieces of both languages stuck together. In this mixture, the French words have come to seem the more polite and elegant, while the Anglo-Saxon words are crude. Generations of students went to school to learn to use the French words and avoid the other. A young lady or gentleman must never say "guts," the proper phrase is "intestinal fortitude."

And so, we grow up learning two English languages: one everyday and the other, elegant, useful for impressing others. We use Anglo-Saxon at home and say, "Up the creek without a paddle." For English teachers, we turn to the French and say, "Up the proverbial estuary without proper means of propulsion." We can say, "I'm intoxicated by the exuberance of your verbosity," or we can say, "You're wordy."

We Rock Islanders lean toward plain words. It's a habit we learned from Mark Twain, Carl Sandburg, and our other river writers, and from our no-nonsense river itself.

Sandburg's "Fog" is a good example of the power of simple, Anglo-Saxon words. It is one of the poems most of us remember from school. "The fog comes on little cat feet," Sandburg wrote. Suppose he had wanted to impress his English teacher by using the other English, and had gotten his thesaurus out, and had written: "The vapors arrive shoreward on miniature feline digits."

It may have gotten an A, but would you remember it?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.