I didn’t mean to suggest in my last post that Czech is somehow any more insane than English. My fascination with aspects of Czech is the way that there’s often an underlying logic applied (as in the Island vs. Not Island example), but the logic turns out to be sort vague and applied in a half-assed manner. Many aspects of English, meanwhile, make no pretense towards logic whatsoever.
1. Our irregular spellings. Widely despised, mocked, railed against. Interestingly, it turns out that we have one man to blame for these. His name was William Caxton. In the early days of book printing in the late 15th century, England was lagging behind much of Europe in the field. Also, the English language was in flux with individual regions speaking their own highly individualized dialect. Caxton was the first prolific English printer; he also happened to hail from the part of England with all the awful ‘th’-y and ‘ough’-y spellings. Hence, he managed to codify the language, but in all the wrong ways.
2. Past-perfect-subjective-purple-monkey-dishwasher tense. Really, our past verb tenses are insane (‘would have had I known’, etc) and the part of the language that seem to inspire the most dread in foreign learners. (I used to work at an agency that had quasi-mandatory English lessons, and the ashen expressions of my Czech co-workers as they emerged from the teacher’s office after trying to learn past conditional led me to dub her ‘the dentist’ and her office ‘the dentist office’. That was fun.) Why not just have an international standardized, simplified version of English? When you consider how many conversations are happening every second in English among two non-native speakers, and how much time is wasted tripping and bumbling over these tenses, it really seems massively cruel and wasteful. And it seems to me that you could fully express yourself if you just used past perfect for everything. “I would have come earlier if I had known you were thinking about coming’ doesn’t express much more than ‘I would came earlier if I know that you thinked about coming’, which is basically the same sentence transposed into Czech grammar.
Here’s a puzzling and quirky aspect of Czech, in case you haven’t yet gotten around to learning the language yourself. I imagine this becoming a kind of fun ongoing series in this blog.
Fun Fact #1: Island vs. Not Island
Generally, the preposition do is used when you’re going to a place (‘jedu do Ameriky’). But, if you’re going to an island, you use na instead (‘jedu na Hawaii’).
Now, if you go to England, that takes the do preposition (i.e. the non-island one). But New Zealand takes the na one (the island one). Even though they’re both islands and New Zealand is bigger. I asked about this and was told that it’s because England is considered more important. Hmm. Seems like kinda a weird subjective measure to base the language on, doesn’t it? If New Zealand somehow became more important on the global stage, would they award it the do preposition?
The New Yorker has a great article on giant Russian bells. From this comes details of Konstantin Saradzhev, Moscow’s most famous bell-ringer, who can hear in ‘microtones’ and whose contempt for the piano led him to refer to the instrument as “The well-tempered nitwit”.
If I hadn’t settled on the Mock Duck theme, I definitely would have called this blog The Well-Tempered Nitwit.
As for Konstantin Saradzhev, he was forgotten altogether – until the nineteen-seventies, when Anastasia Tsvetaeva, the sister of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, published a memoir about his life and fate. As it turns out, Saradzhev really was Moscow’s most famous bell ringer, known not just for ringing but also for his superhuman natural acuity: between two adjacent whole tones, he perceived not just one half tone but a half tone flanked on either side by a hundred and twenty-one flats and a hundred and twenty-two sharps.
When Saradzhev was seven years old, the sound of a particularly powerful church bell caused him to lose consciousness, and he was captivated for life. Although he was a skilled pianist, he always referred to the piano as “that well-tempered nitwit”: a piano can produce only twelve tones per octave, whereas Saradzhev perceived one thousand seven hundred and one. This sensitivity perhaps explains Saradzhev’s intense delight in Russian bells, which are unparalleled in their microtonal complexity. Each bell sounds a unique cloud of untempered frequencies, producing intervals unplayable on any twelve-tone keyboard. By such acoustic fingertips, Saradzhev could distinguish all four thousand of Moscow’s church bells. He described his hearing as “true pitch” (by contrast with perfect pitch). The capacity for true pitch, he said, lay dormant in all humans, and would someday be awakened. But in the meantime he was, like a superhero, cruelly isolated by his own powers. He spent more of his time working on a theory of the future of music that was incomprehensible to anyone who couldn’t hear a thousand or more distinct microtunes in an octave.