Saturday, November 10, 2012

I am a Japanese

I am enchanted by a footnote I stumbled across on page 296 of The Grammar Book. The context is a discussion about the definite (the) and indefinite (a/an) articles in English:

"Generally, the adjective form of a nationality is used with the definite article to function as the generic collective nouns in pattern 3 (e.g., The Germans). If the adjective ends in n or i, then a regular plural ending is added: the Canadians, the Israelis, the Saudis. If the adjective ends in a sibilant sound (e.g., s, z, (t)ch, dge, sh), no plural ending is added: the English, the Chinese, the Welsh, the Dutch. If the adjective ends in -ish, usually the stem minus the suffix is used with a plural ending to form the generic collective noun: Polish/the Poles, Swedish/the Swedes, Finnish/the Finns. However, "English" appears to be an exception to the -ish pattern in that we say "English/the English;" i.e., the sibilant pattern applies here."

I can't stop thinking about this footnote and all the questions it answers, as well as raises. Why isn't the generic plural (when speaking of "human groups that have a religious political, national, linguistic, social, or occupation/professional" affiliation) always the standard "the + noun+s" (p. 284)? In other words, why don't we say, when speaking of the people who live in Japan, "The Japaneses don't care for the American accent"? After all, we would insert "Germans" into that sentence just fine.

And what the heck are we doing with Polish/Swedish/Finnish etc.? Wow, deleting a suffix and then adding the plural ending to the stem. Way to be simple, English language.

I'm guessing "Spanish" is another exception to the last rule mentioned in the footnote, because we certainly don't say "The Spans."

So yeah, English gets a bit wonky when it comes to nationality adjectives. This isn't treated in the footnote, but as a student of language, I've wondered for a long time at the inconsistency of English. We can say he's a German, he's German, he speaks German, but we can't say he's a Japanese; only he's Japanese and he speaks Japanese are acceptable. Then there's he's an Arab, he's Arab, but not he speaks Arab.

Anyway, I'm far from done thinking about this but I'll have to put it on the shelf for a while. If any of you have trouble going to sleep tonight, maybe I've just given you a great alternative to counting sheep!

PS - the post title is from when I was a kid and we had Japanese exchange students every once in a while. A few years after a girl named Ai Yamashita stayed with us, she sent us a letter. Its opening lines were (my brother and I committed them to memory because they made us laugh): "Do you remember me? I am a Japanese. I am Ai Yamashita!!!!!!"


Susanne said...

A blogger Arab friend (from Jordan, lives in Missouri presently working on PhD) told me just yesterday I have "an Arab blood" as in this sentence ("So, I don't think you are crazy I just think you may have an Arab blood :)") which makes this post rather timely since I was thinking about why I would not have written "an" there.

OK, it's not exactly the same, but still...what are the odds that you post about articles and nationalities when I got this just yesterday.

Interesting post! I love English! Not necessarily the English, however. ;)

(BTW, that reminds me of books I've read that said they were "translated from the German." Would you have written it like that?)

Amanda Ball said...

But you could say "the Spaniards" if you wanted.

Bridget said...

Susanne, "the German" is just short for "the German [original text]." At least, that's how I've always read it.

Amanda, yes, you COULD say the Spaniards.

Cait said...

Learning languages is SO FASCINATING, and how things evolved over time. In my Arabic class, students are always whining about how difficult the Arabic grammar is or they ask our professor really difficult questions about "why is it this way and why is it that way?", and I'm all like, "people! English is wayyyyy crazier, and it just IS that way, no need to hassle poor Alison." Now I'm going to be thinking about ese/ish all night.

(PS: I've back from my blog-reading hibernation during the semester so that is why there are a million comments from me tonight!)


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