LanguageIsAFunnyThing: "Did you do that?"

The English language is a strange thing, full of subtle nuances and inflections that can change the meaning of the simplest phrases in dramatic ways.

Here’s an example:

“Did you do that?”

Stress “Did” and you’re emphasising a question already asked, repeating it to the tearful schoolboy who’s already denied kicking the ball through the window. Put the stress on the “you” and you’re showing amazement that the poor schmuck is capable of doing anything at all. Stress the “do” and you’re scolding a little doggie for the puddle in your new carpet (as an aside: I fixed the bathroom floor yesterday, and we’ll soon have a new carpet too. Yippee. No doggie puddles though). Stress “that” and the object is the …ummm… object of your amazement. Maybe it’s an achievement, a crowning glory.

Stress nothing and it’s a simple question, nothing more.

Of course there are other, better, more precise languages than English, where each example above would be a differently worded question, the nuances mapped out to excruciating degree. That’s good.

In an ideal world, we’d use the best language for each job, switching from Latin to Greek to German as the conversation switches from one subject to another. We’d use Italian to talk about food, French as the language of love and German to swear. German is great for swearing.

The irony is that’s pretty much what English is – a glorious bastardization of lots of different languages, borrowing words and phrases as each country in turn has invaded or visited this little Isle. We talk about pasta and spaghetti, of amorous desires (so, so French). Our science and medicine is Latin, our mathematics is Greek and our agricultural terms are Nordic.

It’s a true multi-lingual language. And that’s a good thing. :)

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