“How can I refuse, such an eloquent misuse of a phrase.” Idlewild
I always thought that it would creep up on me like a slightly balding panther, stealthily, sneaking, claws primed to strike and slash away a crop of young, thick hair from my growing brow. Growing brow, I prefer that phrase to gradually receding hairline. It proffers more of a sense of victory than the defeatist linguistic equivalents of retreat.
Yes, there was always going to be a point of no return when it came to turning into my father. I figured in my teenage years that it would be the day I finally received the sort of hairline that the Japanese playfully refer to as resembling Mt. Fuji. Inevitably the attack arrived, but as it turned out, my father’s influence on me has shorn through linguistically rather than in a follicle sense.
Well so far at least.
It is a phrase wielded with ease by parents everywhere when the exhaustion of offering yet another explanation is too much to bear. At other times it’s just the quickest way of stating that something ‘is’ and won’t be changing simply because your adolescent mind is unable to fathom that the logic at work isn’t about to shift at your request.
Children have daily experience with, “because,” adults; not so much. As such, explaining this concept to an adult requires a touch more finesse. Sometimes I can offer a reason for a way of phrasing something and other times the mind simply boggles and I have to um, ahh, well, etooo (Japanese for um) and anoooo (Japanese for ahh) my way through a thicket of hedging to reach my point.
That point being, that I’m afraid it’s just the way it is. We ride on a train, on a bus and in a car. I know how ridiculous it sounds to a foreign listener and I sympathize but even if I knew the etymology of every jumbled bit of English language I can’t always translate it into Japanese. Even if I could I probably can’t tell you why most of the time because even linguists haven’t the faintest.
Inevitably, the final roadblock is socialization. All those times that everyone is told “because” in his or her youth has only served to hardwire in a certain fashion of thinking. So when that hardwiring comes into contact with the ancient foundations of a language, itself a tangle of roots and branches long untouched by a gardener, well it has a little problem coping sometimes.
In practical terms there is such a thing as correct way to say something, yet the nebulous nature of language means that it may not always remain that way. The beauty of language is that it is alive, it evolves and adjusts to its surroundings, bends and flexes in delightful new ways that thrill the poet and leave the pedant aghast; often one and the same person.
Sadly, many of my students tend to fall into one category or the other when they are dealing with English. I have students of all levels who take great delight in the peculiar logic behind idioms. Others who question why they simply can’t lean on their stock phrases for every situation.
In these cases my decision to tell them “because” comes down to the degree to which their freedom with, or lack of interest in the nuance, of the English language is likely to lead them into trouble or embarrassment.
Now, English, unlike Japanese, is an international language. As much as it may pain me to say it, it does not belong to England. It left home long ago and has grown up perfectly fine without its parent leaning over its shoulder. So I try to tell my more advanced students not to worry, that their phrasing, so long as their meaning is clear is perfectly valid, it’s their English and they can use it generally speaking, however they like.
Then a different problem rears its head,
“But teacher, we want to say it like a native speaker!”
Tell them that you must have permission to board planes, trains and boats. Once you have the valid documentation, you can climb on board. You just have to get in a car. Why? Just because…
lol I suppose it depends on where the language focuses attention. Evidently English speakers have a habit of looking down at the boards beneath our feet.
I love your language posts. (Well, all of them, but particularly the language ones.)
I take refuge in two statements:
1) Because English is a crazy language.
2) Because it’s language, not maths.
Now try using those excuses with engineering students …
Thanks very much! I already use reason one, though I do remember that kind of excuse didn’t fly with engineers. I do miss teaching them though, very well behaved but with the sense of humour of a witty 14 year old boy.
Three days later she reappears. Can we just pretend I’m on Africa time? ^^ (I’m from South Africa.) One of my university responsibilities is to teach an English course at the school of engineering. It’s been … educational. Suffice it to say it’s confirmed every stereotype about right-brainers and left-brainers. I find my (99% male, only one female) students adorable, but please don’t tell them I said that. Left-brainers don’t do soppy. 😉
Haha, well I used to spend my uni days with a lot of Physicists and Computer Scientists. Needless to say they conformed to pretty much every stereotype going. However, they are way more fun than the arty types who take themselves far too seriously.