Do verbs make you tense or put you in a bad mood?

runing-2777257I consider myself fortunate to have learnt English as my ‘parent tongue’ – but it can make you very lazy when when most of what you look for on the Internet is published in English and so many other people speak English as a second (or third or fourth) language better than you speak their native language (despite your best efforts).

Although its complexity and many irregularities make English frustrating to learn, some aspects of English grammar are simpler than other languages. For example, we don’t have to worry too much about things like whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. (Did someone move my cheese or did the cheese move itself? The verb is the same in English – so who cares?)

English doesn’t care which gender the subject is when forming the verb. Nor does it assign illogical genders to nouns – unlike many of its Indo-European relatives. (Why on earth would the word for bra be masculine just because it has its origins in the word for arm – le bras – or the miltary?)*

Having spent a few years memorising genders and conjugating verbs in French, Italian, German and other languages, I was relieved to find that Swedish has a relatively straightforward way to form and conjugate its verbs. (Mind you, Swedish does attribute common (uter) or neuter status very randomly to unsuspecting nouns – but at least it combined the feminine and masculine genders long ago, unlike German.)**

I was also happy that Swedish has only two cases – despite a real and present risk of more given that it is a Germanic language (German has four) and the main language spoken in its geographical neighbour, Finland, has enough cases to form the basis of a Christmas carol. (Six locative cases, four grammatical cases, three marginal cases, and two essive cases – The only thing missing is the partridge in a birch tree.)

(Native English-speaking readers who have never tackled some of these other languages are probably thinking ‘What on earth is a case?’ as we mostly use word order and prepositions instead of changing the noun based on its role in a sentence – with the notable exception of personal pronouns.)

Unless you have studied another language, it is possible to be completely oblivious to the names of the various verb tenses in English and how they are constructed. Most of us use very complicated sentence constructions without a second thought (albeit sometimes incorrectly).

I doubt many Australians realise that they are using the third conditional when they say ‘coulda’ or ‘shoulda’ (could have; should have) or the subjunctive mood when they say ‘woulda’ or ‘If only I were …’ (Most people just call it dreamin’!)

Life in English-speaking countries would be much easier if we:

  • had one word for ‘person’ and simply added another character or detail to indicate if we meant a man or woman (like the Chinese)
  • simply repeated the noun, added a number or group word (e.g. many), or relied on the context to communicate plural (like in Bahasa Indonesian)
  • had only one or two forms of a verb and used logic or the rest of the sentence to explain the time an action took/takes/will take place (e.g. last year, yesterday, today, tomorrow, in the distant future – like many Asian languages).

But why spoil all the fun and put language teachers out of a job?

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If you are struggling to master another language and verb tenses are getting you down (like the Sicilian mother having her grammar corrected by her 8 year old son as she grapples with the largely redundant passato remoto – in this post), perhaps this Judy Horacek cartoon (here) will cheer you up a bit and keep you going until the next inevitable hiccup?

Or try this song (here) that I heard for the first time on the radio as I wrote this post (I am not kidding!) that is a politically and grammatically corrected version of ‘Old Elderly Man River’ (...but he don’t say nothin’ but he doesn’t say anything) performed by Stan Freberg in 1957.

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* The word brassière derives from bracière, an Old French word meaning “arm protector” and referring to military uniforms (bras in French means “arm”). This later became used for a military breast plate, and later for a type of woman’s corset. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brassiere Accessed 25 Jan 2014)

** The Swedish word for bra is deemed to be ‘common’ (or ‘uter’ – sort of like ‘uterus’??!!). It is often abbreviated to BH (for its long form – picture the Swedish chef from the Muppets saying ‘bust-holder’) – but watch out as ‘bra’ is potentially a false friend and means ‘good’ or ‘well’. 

News reports a few years ago claimed that Swedish military bras were coming unfastened and spontaneously combusting in response to rigorous exercise. This serious equipment malfunction forced female recruits to strip and attend to their undergarments (perhaps bras really are male?) and gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘bra-burning’. (Source: ‘Swedish military bras burst, melt during ‘rigorous exercise” by Lewis Page. Published 23 Sept 2009)

Photo credit: Ivan Grlic (Dreamstime)



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4 replies

  1. Ha ha! I love this. I have to admit I find linguistcs interesting and I am a bit of a grammar nerd too!
    I am impressed that you have had a go at Finnish. A friend of mine who speaks eight languages fluently spent four months studying Finnish and then declared “It has too much grammar. I simply can’t be bothered.”

    • I’m sure a linguist could find fault in what I have written but my teachers would be pleased to know that some of it sank in! I agree with studies that say that learning languages makes for a more tolerant society as it helps you see the world through others’ eyes. Unfortunately I can barely get by in any of those languages and my Finnish is pretty much limited to ordering drinks at bars as I lived in a Swedish speaking area.

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