Thursday, 4 February 2010

As she is spoke

Larbi has a home-grown English grammar book that he brought with him from Libya. I had a look through it today while the class was occupied with some writing. Does anyone remember the old, the really old ‘Teach Yourself’ books? Well, this is the sort of thing we are talking about here. I had a ‘Teach Yourself German’ when I was about twelve. It dated from the nineteen-forties and studying it involved translating dozens of sentences about the interactions of apples, gentlemen, boys and bakers:

The baker’s boys have sent the gentlemen the apples.
The gentlemen receive apples from the baker’s boy.
Have the gentlemen sent apples to the baker’s boys?

And so on. It went on in this vein for a long time, which explains why I ditched it, and possibly why I've never really got on with German. Teach yourself books of this vintage presented sentences contrived to exemplify grammatical structures rather than real human speech. Famous examples of the genre are ‘the philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen’, ‘my sons have bought the mirrors of the Dukes’ and the old chestnut ‘la plume de ma tante’. Not that there is anything wrong with teachers making up sentences to exemplify grammatical structures; we do it all the time, though these days we do attempt some approximation to real life. Non-native speakers and less linguistically tuned-in native speakers often make a bit of a hash of this. Creating natural-sounding phrases on the spot that exemplify language as real people speak it is not at all easy to do, nor is it given to all to do it well. It’s easy to mock - so here goes.

Professor Al Whatsit, the author of Larbi's book, gives us: ‘that fellow was silly enough to make me leave the room. In case of coming, I shall forgive him.’ This is supposed to exemplify conditionals, I think. I reckon the professor wanted to teach us ‘if he comes back’ or more formally, 'should he come back, I’ll forgive him’. A further example strengthens this impression: ‘in case of going to the hospital, she would recover’. Now, this is probably unfair, but from the choice of examples I began to develop a mental picture of the bloke who wrote this stuff. I imagined a gentleman in portly, well-nourished middle age, immensely satisfied with himself, accustomed to deference and serenely assured that he cannot be wrong about anything. (I lived in a country well stocked with such types for fifteen years.) I mean, he obviously saw no reason to submit his manuscript to a native speaker for proof-reading. ‘She says that Sami will not come tomorrow, but I say that he shall.’ It shall be as you wish, sir.

The writer’s purpose was not, it seems, to teach the everyday language of the common folk. ‘Cover our food, lest flies should spoil it’ is a magisterial phrase in the section on subordinating conjunctions. Nothing wrong with that grammatically, but our man gives us no indication of style here. Good job it isn’t actually a phrase book, or we might get students asking waiters to tether their horses, and calling for capons and a pottle of sherris sack. No, scrub the sack, we are Muslims here, I was forgetting. There is some chilling military jihaddery: ‘they will have been holding their meeting when we attack them’ and ‘we are ready to give our blood as well as our money’. The grammar-freak’s favourite negative adverb with inversion construction is exemplified here with ‘hardly had he opened the door when they shot him’. Try getting Oxford University Press to include this sort of thing in their next bland-as-pineapple-yogurt international adult coursebook. No fucking chance. It'll be the usual bland whities doing the usual bland whitey things, burbling blandly about cell phones, sports and on-line dating.

Other little phrases struck me with their sound good sense: ‘a broken cup is useless’ . No arguing with that. ‘The earth is round in its total shape like an egg, but the earth seems flat’. Indeed it is, and indeed it does. Other phrases were mysterious: ‘green clouds were seen’ is given to exemplify the passive, and I am unable to explain this. Why green clouds? Is it an Arabic idiom? Am I missing some Libyan cultural reference? Or am I just being too literal? After all, there is little to motivate most of the other phrases the writer includes, of which the most puzzling was ‘the box is so narrow that his mother could not sleep inside it’. As I understand it, Muslims do not use coffins, so mum can’t be practising for her own funeral. Maybe it’s just a translation error, further evidence that our author thought proof-reading quite unnecessary.

I have some marking to do now, as the phrase ‘they blame him because he neglects his duties’ reminds me.


Fionnchú said...

OUP illustrated textbooks? I reckon they'll now be full of "the usual bland" committee-approved, government-mandated rainbow coalition with gesticulating persons of not only "white" but of color, differently abled and meticulously sorted by occupation and gender and name-- if not body mass types-- reliably "burbling blandly about cell phones, sports and on-line dating." A variety of holidays included perhaps, but not religion or alcohol. The American market has been dominated by this diktat to redress past wrongs by "whites" overrunning curricula, with an almost comical central casting by earnest PC bureaucrats.

Deiniol said...

"Cover our food, lest flies should spoil it" is indeed magisterial, but surely lestcalls for the subjunctive? WRT the really old fashioned Teach Yourself books, I have to confess that I absolutely love them, to the point of actually collecting the damn things. It was the 1939 edition of Teach Yourself Italian that got me through my first year at university.

vilges suola said...

The issues addressed in coursebooks tend to be very limited and desperate to avoid controversy. One book aimed at Greek teens in the 90s introduced can/could/be able to via an interview with a boy who had become disabled in an accident, and the teachers in Greek schools resisted this to the hilt, because disability was 'depressing' for the kids. One of my own humble efforts contained a dialogue in which someone was trying to buy the book 'Colloquial Albanian'. The editors said a book that so much as mentioned Albanian would not get adopted by Greek schools and they changed it to 'Colloquial Mexican', making me look dumb.

I have a preference for teach yourself books that lay bare the structure of a language I want to learn - I like conjugations and declensions. Those of us who go for this kind of thing are definitely a minority, though.


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