Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Are You Better Now?

How on earth do you answer that common but ambiguous question?
When "better" can mean either completely recovered or just less ill than before.
Yes – I'm better, but I'm not better yet.

How can major, developed, international languages allow such ambiguities to continue for decades or centuries?

Like the American "can" & "can't" which sound almost identical yet mean exact opposites.
Especially silly when the original English pronunciation "carnt" avoided the problem.

Like the French "dessus" & "dessous" which look similar, are only one key-stroke apart, sound too similar, especially to foreigners, yet one means above & the other means below.
And they reappear in no end of compound expressions, creating confusion every time.
Or the French "plus" which can mean either "more" or "no more" depending on the context & an often unpronounced "ne".

Presumably all these foolish things survive because it is nobody's job to improve languages?
Well - maybe languages should have people paid to improve them?

Actually, French does have l'Académie française (http://www.academie-francaise.fr/role/index.html) to look after it.
Consisting of 40 eminent & generally aged members (you might recognize Valerie Giscard d'Estaing & Simone Veil), the Academie's task is to follow evolutions in the language & decide which ones to admit to official status, to define a dictionary, and to provide members for related commissions.
As far as I know, they don't actually propose novel changes to overcome possible difficulties, or even encourage adoption of "improvements" from other French-speaking countries. (I may be wrong there).
If they did, it is hard to imagine how 99 in French could still be "quatre-vingt-dix-neuf" when French-speaking Belgians & Swiss have been using the more obvious & convenient "nonante-neuf" for so long.

Then again, the conservative uprising, when somebody recently suggested dropping circumflex accents, was so strong that maybe no imposed-from-above change is possible.
The only changes which succeed are additions of new technical terms & new youth slang, which can seep in below conservative radar.

So languages never get the intelligent improvements they so badly need.
How odd – for our main means of communication.

Surely it's time for a change.

Parting thot: "In language, the ignorant have prescribed laws to the learned." - Richard Duppa

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