Stresses and Strains

July 9, 2010

Am I ever glad I started to learn English at my mother’s knee, when I still had enough neurons left to do the job and not enough sense to understand the problem. I think if I had to do it over, I’d give up at the start and settle for astrophysics.

What brought all this on is that I am still trying to translate some legal documents from Spanish into English and finding that for every word in Spanish there is a whole string in English, all meaning essentially the same thing. I suppose we can largely blame the Elizabethan playwrights who, having absolutely no respect for tradition, when lost for a word simply invented a new one. But that didn’t mean the old one went out of style, so we ended up with 10 where one would do.

OK, that’s all very well for writers and such who, being paid by the word, never use one when they can slip in 10, but it’s tough on the rest of us who are expected to understand what’s being said when talked at. But there’s something more: I don’t know much about other languages, but in English there are at least three and maybe four distinct channels conveying intelligence, as the linguists laughingly call it.

First, there is the basic information channel, designed to convey the gist of the communication. Ten minutes later, the listener won’t be able to repeat the exact words, but his brain should be able to remember the gist. Thus, the phrase “Did you see Harry today?” boils down to “Seen Harry?”

Second, there is the stress channel, where the meaning changes depending on the stress location. For example, “Did you see Harry today?” means “You promised to see Harry about that loan, so did you?” Or it could be “Did you see Harry today?” meaning “I saw Harry, but did you?” But enough, already; you can figure the rest yourself.

Third, there is the inflection channel, in which the speaker’s tone of voice, inquisitive, accusative, compassionate or whatever, provides a clue to his frame of mind, and giving the listener time to respond in kind or antithesis when the guy shuts his mouth.

Last, there is the strictly visual channel whereby head and hand movements, smiles or grimaces, emphasize both stress and inflection when desirable.

It is particularly instructive to compare speech patterns on Fox, CNN and BBC TV channels reporting on the same event. Fox is belligerent, even frenetic; CNN is assertive, insistent, yet decently moderate; and the BBC is deliberately, sometimes ridiculously low-key, as if to say, “You can believe me, because I have no need to shout.”

So my advice is, if you want to learn English, start early, around 1 year old.

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