By William Lyon Phelps
All persons who speak the English language should never forget the year 1066, for although it bloomed and faded long ago, it was an important event in our lives. In that year William the Conqueror sailed across the English Channel, landed on the south coast of England, and his descendants and those of his party are there yet.
No wonder the British are proud of their naval and military history. England is separated from the continent by only twenty miles; and yet since 1066 not a single person has got into England and stayed there without an invitation. For nearly nine hundred years England has successfully repelled boarders. Many able and determined foes devoted all their energies to realise their heart's desire.The Spanish Armada was a grandiose war-fleet, but Sir Francis Drake and the surface of the Channel that has made so many tourists seasick, were too powerful a combination for the gallant Spaniards. The dream of Napoleon was to invade and possess England; the nearest he ever got to it was St. Helena. There is an enormous column at Boulogne which was erected to "commemorate the intention of Napoleon to invade England." I knew that intentions were often used as pavingstones in a certain locality; but, like Browning's futile lovers in The Statue and the Bust,the immobility of the commemoration is an ironical commentary. In the World War, the Central Powers were well-equipped for an expeditionary force on land, water and air; the best-selling novel in Germany in 1916 was called General Hindenburg's March into London,but it was a work of the imagination.
In reading Tennyson's play Harold,it is interesting to see that his sympathies are all with
the Saxon king; and it is well to remember that William could not have
conquered England had not Harold been engaged in a fatal civil war with his own
brother Tostig. Was there ever a more suicidal folly? When William landed,
Harold was fighting away up in the North in what is now Yorkshire; and he had
to bring his army down to the South coast through incredibly bad roads, and
there meet the First Soldier of Europe.
However and whatever Tennyson may have thought, William's
victory was the best thing that ever happened to England and to those who now
speak English. The battle of Hastings meant much to Americans. Not only was William
a statesman and law-and-order man, he made English a world language. By the
addition of the Romance languages to Anglo-Saxon, he doubled the richness of
our vocabulary; English is a gorgeous hash of Teutonic and Latin tongues.But William did far more for us than that.
Anglo-Saxon, the language spoken by Harold in London, is more unlike the
language spoken by King George V than the language of Virgil in Rome is unlike
the language spoken by Mussolini.
Anglo-Saxon is a difficult language, as difficult for a beginner as German; furthermore, it is inflected.William, although he did not know it, made English the universal language, the clearing-house of human speech in the twentieth century.
It is easier for an American to learn either French or German than it is for a German to learn French or a Frenchman to learn German.Not only are there many words in English which are like French words, but the most blessed result of this victory in 1066 was the eventual simplification of English grammar and syntax.
If William had not conquered England, it is probable that today English speech would have inflexions and grammatical gender. George Moore says that he dislikes English, it is a lean language, the adjective does not agree with the noun-I say, thank Heaven for that! With the exception of pronunciation, the English language is ridiculously simple and easy; any foreigner can learn to write, read and understand English in a short time, and he can learn to speak it with fluent inaccuracy. What a blessed thing for a foreigner who must learn English to know that when he learns the name of a thing that name does not change. A book is always a book, no matter what you do with it.Now, if William had not conquered England, every time you did anything to a book, the accursed word would change. "The book is mine," but "I take bookum," "I go away booke," "I tear a page out bookes," and so on. Then one would have to discover and remember whether book were masculine, feminine, or neuter, and every time one used an adjective, like "good book," that miserable adjective would have to agree with the book in gender, case and number. When one sits down to dinner in a German hotel, one must remember that the knife is neuter, the fork is feminine, and the spoon masculine, and then one's troubles have only begun.
Remember what Mark Twain said of German.How simple
have no case-ending, no gender, and almost no grammar ! No wonder English is
becoming the world-language; it will of course never drive out other languages,
but it has already taken the place occupied by Latin in the Middle Ages, and by
French in the eighteenth century. A man can go almost anywhere in the world
with English; and any foreigner who decides to learn one language besides his
own, must choose English. Anyhow they all do.
The only difficulty with our language is its pronunciation. Not only are we the only people in the world who pronounce the vowels a, e, i, as we do, there are so many exceptions that this rule does not always apply.One has to learn the pronunciation of every word. Suppose a foreigner learns danger, what will he do with anger? And having finally learned both anger and danger, what will he do with anger? I never met but one foreigner who spoke English without a trace of accent; that was the late Professor Beljame, who taught English at the Sorbonne. He told me that he had practiced English every day for forty years, and I afterward discovered that his mother was an Englishwoman. One day I met a Polish gentleman who spoke English fluently, but with much accent; he insisted that he spoke it as well as a native. I left him alone for three hours with this sentence:
"Though the tough cough and hiccough plough me through";
and when I came to hear him read it,
I thought he was going to lose his mind.