It’s said that English is an easy language to learn. Despite the oddities of pronunciation – cough, bough, enough – modern English is largely non-inflected; it doesn’t force lots of awkward endings and agreements on the building blocks of language. Verbs, nouns and adjectives.
I’ve no idea whether English is easier to learn than other, more inflected tongues, either as a first, second, or subsequent language. I found it quite easy, but it’s my mother tongue, so my learning was unconscious and the first use I made of my brain’s Universal Grammar. It felt effortless, and like every child who ever learned to speak, I didn’t think about it as it happened. I didn’t have the cognitive architecture – the brain power – to introspect as the pieces were falling into place.
At school, I did. With French and Latin and Greek and Italian. So too at university, with Sanskrit, Oscan and Umbrian. Oh, and a bit of Russian to keep me on my toes. I got rather a taste for spotting the similarities and differences between linguistic, phonemic, and syntactic structures. In my third year, we even tried to recreate the mythical Proto-Indo European grandmother tongue, like linguistic detectives. Great fun.
But I’m not altogether sure that English is that easy a language to learn – or at least to master. I say this because there are so many small and apparently innocuous words that are loaded with so much more meaning than appears to be the case at first, second or 34th glance. Particularly to a non-native speaker, not inured to our culture of understatement. The kind of culture that has some North American clients say to me from time to time, “Can you stop being so English and actually say what you mean?!”
I reflected on this when a collaborator promised to brief me about one of his clients I’m due to interview soon. He called her a “character”. Well of course she is; she’s an individual who has developed her personality thanks to her unique combination of genes and environment. But he didn’t mean that. He meant – I suspect, because he hasn’t briefed me yet – that she’s feisty and unpredictable, does things by her own rules, tends to be argumentative and emotional, may stray very far off-piste, and generally make the interview not nearly as straightforward as I’d like. But forewarned is forearmed, and that single word briefing is enough to make me approach the conversation with due circumspection.
And then we started to bat other, apparently innocuous English words between us. Words like “fine”, the archetypal English response to the question “How are you?” If it’s done over email, it’s almost impossible to tell what the word means. But in person, with proper intonation, it can mean anxious, underprepared, pissed off, barely surviving, weighed down by man-flu, full of the joys of Spring, fair-to-middling. Fine.
Not to mention “interesting”. As a comment on a meeting or a presentation or an opinion being voiced, interesting can mean almost anything apart from what it literally means, including boring. Opinionated, boorish, stupid, dull, way off the mark, ignorant, ill-informed, challenging. You name it.
And of course “nice”. A word that originally meant exact or precise – as in “that’s a nice distinction” – nice now covers the complete spectrum of niceness, from execrable to superlative.
I love language, and I particularly love the English language; it’s how I keep me and mine in Apple products, after all, helping businesses to use fewer, better words to communicate with more impact. And I’m particularly pleased that English is my first language. Because even though I cannot tell you with any confidence what the words “character”, “fine”, “interesting”, and “nice” may mean, when I read them a little alarm goes off to tell me I’ve got some decoding to do.
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.
Sam has recently written a book called Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data. It was published in April 2018 by Routledge. More at www.narrativebynumbers.com