Organic English

It’s interesting to read about a concept that I thought about often while writing my novel in English but was never fully able to explain it to a native english speaker.

On page 320 of “Stranger in a Strange Land” Robert Heinlein is using his characters to talk about how a language shapes a man’s way of understanding the world around him – he calls it the ‘map of the world’. This map changes for each language, according to the kind of words it incorporates and how they are used.

For me, this is exactly the challenge behind writing full-length novels in english; the map changes enormously and my way of thinking has to change with it. However, the English language is so important nowadays and so rich that I had no doubts about whether to write a novel in it. Here’s a passage from the book where a foreign is explaining this:

“…You will understand, then, how difficult I found English. It was not alone that my native language has much simpler inflections and more limited tenses; the whole ‘map’ changed. English is the largest of the human tongues, with several times the vocabulary of the second largest language — this alone made it inevitable that English would eventually become, as it did, the lingua franca of this planet, for it is thereby the richest and the most flexible — despite its barbaric accretions… or, I should say, because of its barbaric accretions.

“English swallows up anything that comes its way, makes English out of it. Nobody tried to stop this process, the way some languages are policed and have official limits… probably because there never has been, truly, such a thing as ‘the King’s English’ — for ‘the King’s English’ was French. English was in truth a bastard tongue and nobody cared how it grew… and it did! — enormously. Until no one could hope to be an educated man unless he did his best to embrace this monster.

“Its very variety, subtlety, and utterly irrational, idiomatic complexity makes it possible to say things in English which simply cannot be said in any other language. It almost drove me crazy… until I learned to think in it — and that put a new ‘map’ of the world on top of the one I grew up with. A better one, in many ways — certainly a more detailed one.”

Robert Heinlein, through Mahmoud
in “Stranger in a Strange Land”
(originally written in 1961).

Have you felt the same while learning other languages?


3 thoughts on “Organic English

  1. German is so different from English that you have to change your way of thinking when trying to communicate. The saying, “it loses something in translation” doesn’t quite do the reality justice, to be honest. English is hard only in that it has so many words, the grammar itself isn’t too difficult. In German however, the grammar is ridiculous to the point of being non-sensical. Firstly the whole, “he, she, it” rigmarole, then the, “you and polite you” joke. And it simply does not have enough words, lol.
    Welsh is another language that defies logic. All the “Old” languages are difficult and contrived, how I wish we all spoke Esperanto, lol.

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