Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Wonderful Language

I was unlocking the bicycle in front of the local bakery (a very decent brown bread is available there at a very reasonable price) when one member of a quartet of navy uniform-clad male middle school students opined, in my direction, "Explain."

In English.

I stood up.

"'Explain'...'explain'..." he went on, as he was not, as it turned out, talking to me. "I know the word but I don't know what it means."

"Setsumei suru," intoned his three classmates, in unison.

"Right, right...but what is that other 'ex' word...the one meaning 'subarashii?'" he asked, semi-rhetorically.

"'Excellent'," responded his classmates, in unison again.

"'Excellent'...'explain'...I am hopeless in English. I will never get the hang of it," the boy concluded.

To which one of his classmates, in a staccato noun modifier straight out of Mark Twain, declared:

"Behold the (unfit-for-life-as-a-member-of-international-society-and-thus-without-any options-but-to-spend-the-full-length-of-his-days-within-the-confines-of-the-boundaries-of-Japan) idiot (bakamono)."

"Wow," I said to myself, "Not only would that that kid have tickled Twain*...but his take on the basic education requirements for anyone ascribing to global survival sure sounds like someone who has been reading his Robert Dujarric."

The above all happened on Thursday night. Based upon Robert Dujarric's most recent op-ed, published on Friday, M. Dujarric must have been listening in, telepathically.


* "Now here is a sentence from a popular and excellent German novel -- which a slight parenthesis in it. I will make a perfectly literal translation, and throw in the parenthesis-marks and some hyphens for the assistance of the reader -- though in the original there are no parenthesis-marks or hyphens, and the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb the best way he can:

"But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor's wife met" etc., etc. 1.

1) Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehüllten jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Regierungsräthin begegnet.

That is from The Old Mamselle's Secret, by Mrs. Marlitt. And that sentence is constructed upon the most approved German model. You observe how far that verb is from the reader's base of operations; well, in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all."

-- Mark Twain, "The Awful German Language" (1880)

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