English is Our Second Language

English is Our Second Language…

“If [a] pupil shall happen to be of so contrary a disposition, that he had rather hear a tale of a tub than some wise and learned discourse…I see no other remedy, but that he be bound prentice in some good town to learn to make minced pies….”


~Michel de Montaigne

[(1533-1592) Essayist, Philosopher and Educator.]


English is a very difficult language to learn-especially as a “second” language. It has been said that “English has no rules”. This is not true; English has rules it just does not always obey them. This is largely due to the fact that English is a “dynamic” language and not a “dead” language. The rules for speaking and writing Latin or Ancient Greek will never change. The rules for speaking and writing English on the other hand have and will continue to change. Fortunately for us, these changes have taken place and will continue to take place over long periods of time. Even its name is borrowed from a Germanic tribe that has long since disappeared from history and about whom little is known: the Angles.

I Blame the Parents

English is one of many Germanic and Scandinavian languages that are in turn part of a larger family of Indo-European languages (along with Latin, Ancient Greek and the Semitic and Slavic languages). Whether or not these Indo-European languages share a distant “Parent Language” one from which they all derive, is a subject of much academic speculation that is far too complex to summarize here. As an example of what a parent language is, Latin is the parent language of all of the Romance languages: French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese and of course, Italian. Each of these Romance languages survives Latin as a dynamic language that represents a local adaptation of its Latin parent. The first and foremost casualty of these adaptations was Latin grammar principally they all lose Latin case endings. In Latin grammar noun-stems and verb-stems acquire an ending depending on the “case” of the verb. [We will discuss this later.]

Just as the Romance languages derive from a known common source, English derives from an unknown source that was common to it and many of its predecessors. Once again the principal difference between the parent language and its heirs seems to be the loss of case ending-agreements. For example, we know that Old English (the language Beowulf was written in) employed case ending-agreements; Middle English (the language of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) did not. Some of the confusion that resides in Modern English may be attributable to the loss of case ending agreements.

To make matters even more complicated, the British Isles (named for another people that have also disappeared and about whom little is known) were invaded by the Romans and later by the Saxons as Rome slid into decline. The polyglot cultures of ancient Britain (the Celts, the Bretons, the Jutes, the Picts, the Angles, the Welsh all spoke different but related languages) combined through necessity with the Saxons to form Anglo-Saxon England. They spoke a language that would become Old English. To make matters worse, Anglo-Saxon England was invaded by the Normans who spoke a Frankish dialect influenced by their Scandinavian forebears and Latin.

Mostly through the efforts of Christian missionaries (from Rome) beginning in the forth and fifth centuries, the language that was common to both the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans was Latin. As a consequence of commerce and necessity [–you have something I want, I have something you want; neither of us speaks the other’s language but we both know a little Latin–] the language of Beowulf became the language of Chaucer in the space of about 300 years. It took less than another 200 years for Chaucer’s language to transform into Early Modern English-the language of William Shakespeare and Elizabethan England.

In fact most of my students over the past ten years did not recognize the first few lines as English at all:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote

The droughtes of March hath perced to the rote

And bathed every veyne in swich licor

Of which virtu engendered is the floure….~ Canterbury Tales: “Prologue”

Shakespeare has been much more recognizable for them:

Now is the winter of our discontent

made glorious summer by this sun of York

and all the clouds that lowered on our house

in the deep bosom of the ocean, buried. ~Richard III, I: 1.

The English Shakespeare used is the same language we use, except for word order and a substantial increase in vocabulary. So, English is a Germanic language with a substantial Latin-derived vocabulary but without case ending agreements from either culture or language. In order to compensate for the lack of case ending agreements, speakers of English had to adapt some of the parts of speech to “help” those they had problems with, due to the lack of case ending agreements. Chief among these are adverbs, words that help verbs; and prepositions, words that help nouns. Since most language scholars agree that the verb is the most important part of speech in written and spoken English, we will begin with verbs. To be more precise, we will begin with Latin verbs. Verbs are actions or states of being.

Verbs Are Not Your Friends

Frederick Wheelock[i] wrote that Latin and English verbs have five “characteristics”: Person, Number, Tense, Mood and Voice (p.2). Person and Number, as characteristics are relatively straightforward and function very much the same in both languages. Person refers to the person, thing, people or things that are acting or being acted-on. Number simply addresses whether the Person element is singular or plural. Tense refers to time, when did happen: in the past, in the present, in the future-two additional tenses are the “past perfect” or “pluperfect” and “future perfect”. The pluperfect is a verb that describes an action that is absolutely complete and exists only in the past. The future perfect is just the opposite; it is a speculative statement about an event that might, should or must happen in the future. These are both perfect, I suppose, in either the imagination or in memory.

Whereas Latin verbs often just change endings to express each of these characteristics, English more often requires additional words (helping words). For students studying English as a foreign language it is often the use of these helping words that is most confusing. In English (and this is one of “rules” that I wrote about above-one of those rules that English does not always obey consistently) sometimes English verbs change form without a helping word; sometimes verbs don’t change form but require helping words; and sometimes verbs change form and require helping words. In order to know which is appropriate, one must simply memorize which is appropriate in the given context.

As an example of this the future perfect phrase in Latin “Carthago est delenda” (Cato, the Roman orator would end each of his speeches with this phrase) is usually translated “Carthage must fall”. Carthage was a city-state in North Africa, a Phoenician colony and Rome’s principle rival for dominance of trade routes in the region during the fourth and third centuries Before the Common Era.) However the verb deleo means “to destroy” not “must fall” or “to fall”; so, in English the phrase requires adverbs or helping words to convey the original meaning, thus: “Carthage must be destroyed”.

Also, because the Latin phrase employs the proper case endings the word order doesn’t matter. Cato may have phrased it “Carthago delenda est” or “Delenda est Carthago”, both mean the same thing. Because English and the Romance Languages lost their case endings they must rely on word order to convey the proper meaning. If we consider the traditional translation “Carthage must fall” and we change the word order as we have with the Latin we are left with “Carthage fall must” or “Fall must Carthage.” If we use the more accurate translation and try to change the word order the result is even funnier “Carthage destroyed must be” or “Destroyed must be Carthage.”

The pluperfect or past perfect has a temporal requirement that the action was completed before another action that was also in the past. It usually is constructed of two verbs both in the past tense: “I had loved”; in Latin due to the use of case endings, this is “amaveram. Had is an “auxiliary” verb.

Verbs are said to be able to “take” objects either directly or indirectly; the way that it takes objects expresses the “voice” of the verb. Verbs that can take direct objects are called “transitive” and those that cannot are called “intransitive.” Objects in a sentence are either directly or indirectly affected by the action of the verb “performed” or enacted by the subject. This is why subjects are usually near the beginning of the sentence, verbs are usually near the middle and indirect objects are after the verb and the object is near the end. Transitive verbs cause the action to “pass over” the indirect object to the object. “You should give the lady a chair!” The subject is “You”, the verb is “give”, the indirect object is “lady” and the direct object is “chair”.

In both Latin and English, forms of the verb “to be” (Latin: “esse) are intransitive and often require a predicate noun. (Sentences are divided into subjects and predicates–the subject is the “who”–the predicate is the verb “what happened” or “is happening” or “might or should happen”–and all the words that are dependent on the verb-either directly or indirectly.) This predicate noun usually refers back to the subject. Often intransitive verbs usually describe states of being. “I am a college teacher.” “I” is the subject; “am” is the intransitive verb; “college” is a noun that here, is acting like an adjective; and “teacher” is a predicate noun that refers back to the subject “I”.

In English and in Latin verbs can be said to have one of three “moods”: The “indicative”, the “imperative” and the “subjunctive”. The indicative merely “points-out” facts; the imperative “orders actions”; and the subjunctive mood describes what might happen “hypothetical[ly]” or “potential[ly]” (Wheelock, p. 2). In both languages a verb in the imperative mood requires the use of the infinitive. The infinitive in English and Romance languages is often referred to as the “command form”, for example. The infinitive form of the verb is the form from which all other forms decline. In English there are regular and irregular verbs as there are in Latin and the Romance languages.

“To go” is an example of an English irregular verb; Eo, is its Latin counterpart; but they decline very differently. “Go” hardly changes in the present tense; the form of the word doesn’t begin to look different until we look at (for example) the past tense:

To Go (present tense)

I go

You go

We go

He, she, it goes

You (two) go

They go

In Latin (Present tense)

Eo (I go)

Is (You go)

It (He,she,it goes)

Imus (We go)

Itis (You two go)

Eunt (They go)

Somehow the word “go” in English, in the past tense becomes “went”. To understand the change we look at the etymology: “go” is from the Anglo-Saxon “gan” it means “go”; “went” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “wend” which means “to turn”. So, over the course of time, English speakers conflated two different words meaning two different things into the same word-albeit in different tenses. This is not an isolated phenomenon. One synonym for “go” is “travel”; if we look at the etymology of the word we find that it derives from the Latin “tres” and “palus” added together these mean “three stakes” and refers to a kind of torture! So we have two words that mean basically the same thing in English, derived from two different cultures with entirely different meanings within their respective languages and revealing two different sensibilities or psychologies in the two different cultures; nonetheless, both words are found on a page of synonyms! (The New Century Dictionary, Vol. II, pp. 2314, 2392[ii]).

Now we should turn back to the major theme(s) of this exercise: did the loss of case ending simplify or complicate the English language and if so, how so? In order to return to this discussion we should first consider what Latin case endings are and how they function as a part of that language. Then we can extrapolate from that examination the function and nature of case endings in English’s lost parent language and the subsequent effects of the abandonment of case endings on the English language.

Alright, Who Lost Their Case Endings?

To say that the English language has abandoned case endings entirely would be wrong; however I can only think of a single word that has retained a case ending. (That doesn’t mean that there are not other instances just that I can’t think of any…) “who”; when it becomes the object of the sentence is spoken or written as “whom”. “Whom” is the “objective case” of the word “who”. The words survive from the Anglo-Saxon interrogative “hwa”: in the genitive case “hwaes”(like “whose”), dative case “hwaem” (like “whom”), accusative case “hwone”, neuter “hwat”-this latter becomes “what” in English (New Century Dictionary, p. 2206). “Who are you waiting for?” is a simple subjective use of the word “who”-“who is the subject and “you” is the object. “For whom are you waiting?” “whom is the object, “you” is the subject; both sentences share the verb “waiting” and the preposition “for”; the word order determines the case-use of either “who” or “whom”. In Latin, case endings are not determined by word order; case endings demonstrate or express the role played by the word in the sentence-what the word “does”, relative to the other words.

Cases are the various forms of inflected nouns (Wheelock, p. 10). Most inflected languages have five or six cases. Wheelock identifies six: Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Ablative and Vocative (p.10). The Nominative case indicates the noun as the subject of the verb. The Genitive case signifies possession by the noun of another noun and is usually translated with the word “of” in English. The Dative case indicates that the noun is an indirect object of the verb (as is “whom” in the example above); “to” and “for” are often used with a noun in the Dative case. The Accusative case is used to indicate the “direct object of the action of the verb” (p. 10). The Ablative case is usually translated by using adverbs. Wheelock calls this case “complex” and difficult to identify. In English adverbs modify the verb or “help” it-or help us to understand the action of the verb. Wheelock further suggests that we associate the ablative case with the “English prepositions …by, with, from, in, on, at” (pp.10-11). The “vocative has the same form as the nominative” (p.11). I think it’s somewhat like an exclamation point–but it’s still unnecessary for our purposes here.

By contrast, in English there are no case ending changes for nouns; we can tell the role each word plays in a sentence by word order and the other words in the sentence. Personal pronouns on the other hand do change form depending on their function or role in the sentence. If we borrow from the example above “who” would be “nominative”, “whose” would be “genitive” and “whom” would be “dative”. To extend the analogy, “he” is nominative, “his” is genitive and “him” is dative. This analogy works well however only for first person singular: I is “nominative”, my is “genitive” and me is “dative” or “accusative” (that is, it can be either the direct or indirect object of the verb). We start to run into trouble with the first person plural form “their”. Although “their” is a possessive form, in order to “show” possession it sometimes requires an “s” as in “it is theirs”; but “they can take their books home” –in the latter phrase, “their” still shows possession, but does not require an “s”. And to make things worse “it’s” does not show possession—“it’s” is always a contraction of “it is”. (These are other inexplicably “flexible” or simply broken rules!) Nonetheless, when “their” is the subject it requires no “s” when “their” is the object, it requires an “s”. [Thus ends another perfect day in the f****d-up history of English grammar!]

In fact almost all proper nouns show possession with an apostrophe “s” (‘s). The use of an apostrophe and an “s” is an archaic contraction of (for example) “John his…”.The apostrophe is there to indicate that the “h” and “i” of “his” have been omitted. The addition of “his” to the proper noun compensates for the fact that English nouns do not change case to show possession. So while we may think that it sounds strange to say “That’s John his book”, “that’s John’s book” seems normal. In most Romance languages possession is shown with a preposition. In French our phrase would be rendered “c’est le livre de Jacques”. Literally translated this would be “it is the book of John”. C’est” can be interpreted sometimes as this or that depending on the context; although “ce” is “this”; “cella” or “ca” is “that”; however these commonly occur in a contraction with the third person singular form of the verb “etre” (“to be”) “est” or is. French (and most other Romance languages) is (are) a gendered language(s) (the nouns are either masculine or feminine). The article “le” is used with masculine nouns and “la” with feminine. In English nouns are neutral and things are not assigned a gender-and even though people have genders, the article “the” does not change form to “agree” with the gender of the person being spoken about. Nor is the object referred to with an engendered pronoun like “she” or “he”; as much as I am fond of my car, “she” is still and always will be merely an “it”.

In English “that” is a very versatile word that can be used in a number of ways; “this” in English is an indicative pronoun and sometimes adverb. On the other hand if we consult the New Century Dictionary, we find that “that” like “this”, derives from “the” and can be a demonstrative or relative pronoun, an adverb or a conjunction. It comes to us almost unaltered from the Anglo-Saxon “thaet” (both the nominative and the accusative singular cases) (p.1971).

So, how do we decide when to use “this” and when to use “that”? “This” is probably more “specific” than “that”. For example, if I were holding a book and someone asked me, “whose book is that?” I would answer “this book is mine.” On the other hand if someone standing across the room and was looking at a book on one of my bookshelves they would ask “whose book is this?” And I would answer “that book is mine.” The best way to make sure you are using the right word is to try to exchange one word for the other. C’est ne pas le meme chose.

We have seen how English handles the nominative and genitive cases (or absence thereof). Since the matter of the dative and accusative cases are handled the same way we can discuss both at the same time. Whether or not a noun is the direct or indirect object of a verb is almost always expressed by the order of the words. “Give the book to John” and “Give John the book” express the same idea; however, even though the verb is in the same tense and form, the nouns do not change in spelling or in form, they change relative to the verb “give”. In the first sentence, “Give” is the verb, “book” is the subject, “to” is a predicate, “John” is the object. The question of which noun is the subject and which the object is often settled by asking simple questions like Q: “What was John given?” A: “The book was given to John” and Q: “To whom was the book given?” A: “John was given the book”. Although this doesn’t work in the second sentence, the same book is given to the same John-but this time there is no preposition between the verb “give” and the subject “John” and that’s how we can tell that “John” is the subject and “book” is the object.

Obviously there is more than one way to express the same idea in English all of which may be grammatically correct. But there are some ways that are better than others. Generally speaking, active writing or speaking is better than passive writing or speaking. Speaking and writing that is clear, simple and direct is always best. “Give John the book” is stronger than “Give the book to John”. One may think that this is an entirely arbitrary judgment but it isn’t. Both “John” and “book” are nouns and therefore potential subjects but “John” is a person and “book” is a thing. People are stronger subjects than things. [Even though I may like books more than I like John or most people….] Just as “the book of John” is passive, “give the book to John” is passive: In both instances, this is because of the use of the preposition before the noun. One more sentence, then we’ll move on; consider the phrase “Sally gave the book to John”. Q: “Who gave the book?” A: “Sally gave the book”-so Sally is the subject. Q: “What was given?” A: “The book was given.” “Book” is the direct object of the verb “gave” (past tense). Q: “To whom was the book given?” A: “John was given the book.” “John” is the indirect object of the verb “gave”. [The second to last question brought-up an interesting point-I know I said we’d move on but I can’t resist-is there ever an instance where the subject occurs at the end of a sentence? “To whom was the book given?” is a good example. “Given” is the verb, “book” is the subject and “whom” should be an indirect object although it is acting like a direct object! English is a difficult language…. And I think John should have to pay for the book! He sure as hell has to pay for mine! I just don’t like him!]

The last case-ending we will consider is the ablative. Even in Latin the ablative case is difficult. In English which no longer has an ablative case ending, the proliferation of adverbs needed to convey the sense of an ablative case is mind numbing. Since I have no great desire to ruin your good looks with crossed eyes and a “mouth breathing” stammer and stare; and since the ablative often involves a torturous conflation of the ablative with the pluperfect-we might forego this exercise altogether. The past tense can almost always repair grammatical nightmares as “they had been having” to “they were having” or “they had”. Why this is so, is best left alone….

Spanking English

Another reason why English remains difficult to speak or write effectively is because we have, over the years forgotten why we say the things we do, and why we say them the “way” we say them. One should very seldom write the way one speaks. Speaking is less formal than writing, as a rule and does not always have to obey all the same rules. For example grade school students are often corrected when they ask to be excused, to ask “may I please be excused to use the bathroom…?” instead of “can I go to the bathroom….?” Both “can” and “may” are words that imply a conditional situation; but “can I” is almost always interpreted as a “physical ability”, while “may I” almost always refers to “requisite permission”. In the one case, the student is literally asking if he is physically able to urinate or whatever; in the other case he or she is asking to be excused for the purpose of going to the restroom to do whatever. We’ll cover euphemisms next, but they are just ways to say things that no one wants to talk about.

This is yet another frustrating point for those who are trying to learn English as a second language and for so-called “native speakers.” Americans tend to use “euphemisms” and slang instead of just saying or writing exactly what they mean. We usually do this thinking that it is “more polite” or perhaps more “familiar”, or even more “hip”. Generally speaking, Americans are more timid or reserved or shy concerning their bodily functions than are many other cultures in the world. Some historians blame this on our Puritan forebears, who sought perfection in “God’s eyes”; some blame it on Queen Victoria’s long and suppressive rule in England that impressed Eastern society in this country as a model for behavior. I believe it is due to the size of this country and the reasonable expectation of privacy that inheres in a “frontier mentality” and increases geometrically from one generation to the next despite the realities of overcrowding and ever invasive government… [If you didn’t follow that reasoning, don’t worry-it’s just a joke! So I can’t explain it.]

To illustrate I offer three imaginary accounts of Lady Godiva’s famous act of civil disobedience: The first might be an authoritative account in a formal report prepared for the government: “Lady Godiva was seen today riding through the streets of Coventry, to protest her husband’s latest tax increases.” The second might appear in a casual conversation among “polite” company [presumably both men and women]: “I heard that Lady Godiva rode through town nude today.” The third account might be the “eye-witness” statement from the infamous “peeping Thom” [who, against Lord Godiva’s orders and at his own peril, “peeked” while everyone else averted their eyes] “Yeah I saw her she was bare-ass naked-God she was fuckin’ hot!” The first two are acceptable in “polite company” whereas, of course, the last is not.

Slang and coarse or vulgar language are almost never acceptable in formal writing or speaking. There are however times when slang or vulgar language is not acceptable in informal speaking or writing. Our friends and perhaps our families will forgive or overlook our indiscretions but people in the workplace or people we do not know, may take offense. As a teacher and as a scholar I can tell you the origins and relative levels of emotional intensity for many of these “naughty” words; yet I don’t discourage my students (even the younger ones) from using them. Expletives have their place in our language and they express feelings that other words simply cannot. The social “rules” that govern speech and even writing—in general– are relaxing somewhat. I think that it is ironic (and pertinent—and more than a little entertaining) to note—that words that would have gotten one’s face slapped in Ancient Rome, for example—are now a part of our contemporary clinical terminology.

I find it also heartening to note, that when I was in College George Carlin released a record album (a big, flat, black vinyl disk in a protective cardboard sleeve—one placed it on a ‘turntable’—after removing it from the protective sleeve– and listened to it like a CD through ‘speakers’—or with headphones that plugged into your ‘stereo system’) “The Ten Words You Can’t Say on Television” was one of the routines on the album. I am happy to report that one can now say all but three or four of the words on most Network Television shows, during primetime. Of course, Network Television is no longer the dominant medium in this country—and in virtually every other medium one can say, hear, see, show, do or watch— these words and or what they describe—and this has been true for thirty years!

One of the things that I like to do for my classes is to read Aristophanes (the Ancient Greek Comic playwright) in translations that are ‘truer’ to the intent of the original. I also enjoy analyzing Shakespeare’s plays and explaining the finer points of Elizabethan slang and innuendo to the class. Oh well, some things are still not quite possible in the asynchronous environment of the OLS….

As for those words whose meanings escape most of us-I don’t mean obscure words I mean the words we use every day. For example “goodbye”: “goodbye” may properly appear written as “goodbye”, “good bye” or “good-bye”. We typically use this word as something to say when we part company-yet originally it was used both for meetings and departures. Originally the phrase would have been an early medieval version of “God be with you”; this became “God bide ye” and that became “goodbye”; this transformation came not through the academics, but through the common people.

This may be a problem that has almost always existed in the English language: Academics, who understand how a language ought to function, have little influence on those who actually use the language. If we add an influx of foreign influences, people who are being taught to speak and understand the language by those who use it without understanding how or why it works the way it does, we begin to see why the language is in decline. Let’s face it, most people can only find expression for their passions in their native tongue; but when one’s understanding of one’s native tongue fails, one can only imitate the expressions of others’ passions, usually only in another native tongue. If we are not going to adopt an “official second language” then we should require that “native speakers” actually be taught to speak and write the English language-first-before they are allowed to teach it to anyone else!

We pride ourselves on being a culture that can absorb the immigrants from other cultures; we should not allow our language to continue to be absorbed by other languages simply because most of us do not know how to speak English properly and are therefore incapable of teaching it effectively to others. We can teach the language to others only when we learn to write and speak it properly ourselves. [It is to me, a most remarkable and somewhat delicious irony that many of the same people who complain that “foreigners come to this country, take our jobs and can’t even speak the language”, are the same ignorant dolts who will, in the final analysis be responsible for the demise of the English language as we now know it…. Although I must admit some sense of sadness that my descendents will have to be specialists in archaic languages in order to read what I have written. This is especially true and especially poignant when I consider that I come from and have no doubt fathered a line of exceptionally lazy people who would much rather party than study archaic languages.]

Idiom is 4/5ths of Idiot

One of the more difficult aspects of most languages is “idiom”; idiom is all of the heavily nuanced words that attach to specific situations that change the meanings of those words that are being used. I remember a friend of mine in College, Theresa; she was older than the rest of our group (26, we were 17, 18 and 19); she told us about the time she was in France with a group of friends; she was trying to impress her friends with her command of French. The room was very warm so she told her friends “je suis chaud!” Her friends immediately burst into spontaneous laughter. She had meant to say “I am warm” what she said in idiomatic French was “I am horny”. [Or “I want sex”; “horny” is American English idiom.]

A more specific example drawn from everyday experience in American culture may be found once again in greetings and leave-taking situations. Common greetings in contemporary American culture are “hi, how are you?”, “hey”, “how’s it going?”, or “what’s up?” All of these mean approximately the same; they are simply greetings. Each may be answered very simply by saying “hi” or “hey” in return. “How are you today?” is more specific and requires a more specific answer like “I’m fine; how are you?” or even “good, how are you”. These exchanges are all idiomatic and non-grammatical for the most part. These are all examples of the way that English as it’s practiced, “trumps” proper English.

Some greetings point even more directly to the idiomatic nature of salutations and leave-taking methods of address. If we consider, for example methods of address that refer to the time of day rather than to the well being of the person being addressed, these idiomatic differences become clearer: we say “good morning”, “good afternoon” and (more formally) “good evening” all as greetings, but we say “good night” only as a method of taking our leave or saying “good bye”. Furthermore this is true only among English speakers in America; in England “good morning” (etc.) or “good day” may be used either to greet someone or to take one’s leave or say good bye. The differences are cultural and idiomatic, that is to say they have been reinforced by practice differently in both cultures over time.

If it is ungrammatical to answer “good” when one is asked “how are you?” what is the correct answer? One should answer “I am well”. This brings us then to the differences between “well” and “good”. Although they are often used interchangeably there are fundamental differences between the two words. “Good” is an adjective and “well” is a verb or an adverb; especially when applied to people (one’s self or others) “good” generally refers to behavior and “well” refers to a state of being. We can see this difference in two sentences that express the same basic sentiment: “She gave a good answer” and “She answered the question well”. In the first sentence “good” describes the noun “answer”; in the second sentence, “well” modifies or helps the verb “answered”; but “well” also at least appears to act as an adjective that describes “answered” if “answered” were a noun. However, whereas “answer” is most often a noun, “answered” is only a verb; as a noun, “answer” requires an article, “the” or “an” or someone or something to possess it: “his”, “her” or even “John”; “answer” as a verb often changes tense for clarity-“John answered”; or “answer” may be accompanied by another verb to signify that it is being used as a verb and not a noun: “When will he answer?”

When applied to things that are not capable of behavior “good” generally refers to a quality that resides in the thing; “well” when applied to things can act like an adjective or a verb or an adverb. “Well” is most often used nonetheless to reference a state of being: “Well done”, “well made”, “well formed” etc. Often these phrases are written with a hyphen to express the close relationship of the verb to the adverb. The hyphen makes a new word (almost) that acts like an adjective to describe the noun (except in the negative). “The house was well-built”; “well-built” describes the state of being of the “house”. On the other hand one would say “The house was not built well” to indicate the contrary. In the latter instance “well” modifies the verb “built” and is an adverb once again. The hyphen is no longer necessary.

Better Take Notes…[I’ve got a bad feeling about this…]

English is a very difficult language to learn. Words in English simply refuse to behave like words in English are supposed to behave. Most Romance languages have only one word that is translated as either “well” or “good” depending on the context. Both “well” and “good” derive from a Germanic language through Anglo-Saxon. Both “well” and “good” can be used interchangeably in some instances, but not in others. Because English has been spoken or “used” by people from non-English speaking cultures over time, and because these latter have learned English as it is spoken and not as it is properly taught or written, the language has been corrupted. Now, this is simply a fact-I am not a purist and I believe that English should be a dynamic language and not a dead one like Latin. I am simply warning people who are coming to the English language for the first time, or in an academic setting, that there are limitations that inhere in English that do not occur in other languages.

The difficulty for me is that, even fifty years from now, French, Spanish, [Castilian], Italian and Portuguese even German will exist in much the same form they are today. [Simply put, they are easier to teach, period.] “American English” in both spoken and written form will most likely be a very different language than it is today-perhaps so much so that no one who speaks “American English” then will be able to read my books without annotations or a concordance.

Consider that the average educated person living in Elizabethan England probably understood about 3500-7000 words—they could get by using about 500-1500 words. Shakespeare, arguably one of the most literate of men, used about 16,000 to 20,000 words in his plays. The entire Elizabethan language probably consisted of about 160,000-200,000 useable forms[iii] of words—much of the language was still changing rapidly.  By contrast, the average educated person today probably understands 15, 000 words and the entire language has about 700,000 useable forms. We have learned more words, but we have also invented or acquired more words. If we just look at the percentages though, the average educated Elizabethan (excluding exceptions like Shakespeare) could recognize and use a substantially greater percentage of his language than the average educated person today can.

The Norman’s Conquest of the Anglo-Saxons happened in a single day (from about 9:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. on October 14, 1066…nearly 1000 years ago). The first thing (or one of the first things) that William did was to order a general accounting of everything. In order to do this efficiently, and to control the people effectively, William and the Normans had to change the Anglo/Saxon language to English. …At least anecdotally, one can look at some of the language, the etymologies and origins of some of the words, and one notes some interesting co-incidences: The name of the “Domesday Book” (ledger) itself was Anglo/Saxon in origin; the definition of the book is given as “a record or survey of the lands of England made by order of William the Conqueror giving the ownership extent value etc. of the properties” (New Century Dictionary, vol. 1, p. 448). “Record” and “survey” are both from Old French words; while “giving,” “ownership,” and “lands” are all Anglo/Saxon. Furthermore, “count,” “extent,” “value,” and “properties” are all Old French in origin, as is the generic term “cattle”. “Cattle” does not mean just cows; if fact it means “property, goods, wealth, stock, and capital” (p.224). It is apparent too, that many of the names or words for the things that were counted by the Normans were of Anglo/Saxon origin: “Sheep,” “cows,” “horses,” “oxen,” “eggs,” “chickens” and “swine.” [“Hog” and “pig” are both Middle English.]

This argument is not proof of anything—but I think it is fair to say that the language (at least at a glance) seems to betray a sense within it, that the administrative and legal functions were taken over by the Normans (the French) while the more mundane functions were still performed by the Anglo/Saxons (the English): “How many swine?” “How many cows?” “How many sheep?” The answers were grouped into neat columns, under general headings like “Cattle”….[actually in Latin of course] …but psychologically, emotionally and in all the other ways that would count—eventually; in the ways that the language changed; in the ways that people actually lived and worked together under Norman rule—in the ways that all things were counted and the taxes were levied and paid by the Anglo/Saxons to the Norman feudal lords; in all these ways the world changed along with the language.

For those who would change (hijack or hybrid) my language I have two words: The first is Anglo-Saxon and the second is the objective case of the pro-noun “I” in both Anglo-Saxon (from Danish and German antecedents-the now forgotten parent language of all three) and in Latin: BITE ME! The consolation for me is of course, that I won’t be here to see (or hear) the changes. I can imagine what these might be like.

I will even give you a hint, there will be no more grammar as you might recognize it; syntax will be a matter of efficiency, not custom; while many words will sound like their remote antecedents in English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian or Chinese there will be no alphabet, only pictograms- in a way like Chinese or Korean! Not Chinese-Chinese and a few other “pure” languages will probably be reserved for the upper classes. No, for working stiffs like me, the polyglot language of the future will consist only of a few thousand words, lights and symbols pertaining to the assignment and completion of tasks. A single word will mean both “well” and “good” because that is the most efficient; “success” and “failure”, “reward” and “punishment” will cease to exist as words, because “failure” will not be an option and the only reward will be one’s continued existence. Finally, the alternative to continued existence will be an “oblivion” for which many euphemisms will be invented…. In whatever limited language or idiom is available….


[i] Wheelock, Frederick M., Rev. Richard A LaFlour, Wheelock’s Latin: The Classic Introductory Latin Course Based on Ancient Authors. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc: 2006.

[ii] The New Century Dictionary, Vols. One and Two. H.G. Emery and K.G. Brewster, Eds., Catherine B. Avery, Revision Editor. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc: 1952,

[iii] A “useable form” can be understood as various “root words” and all of the ways it changes “by itself” or in combination with other “word forms”….  The numbers are approximations only, and valuable only for comparisons.


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